A federal agency is prohibiting a ranger from testifying about his stolen gun used to fatally shoot a California woman, whose 2015 death was referenced repeatedly by then-candidate Donald Trump to underscore his call to deport criminals living in the country illegally.
Juan Francisco Lopez Sanchez, who was deported five times, admits fatally shooting Kate Steinle while she walked with her father on a San Francisco pier crowded with tourists. He has said the shooting was accidental and has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder.
Two years after the killing, the case is inching closer to trial. But Lopez-Sanchez' lawyers are now wrangling with the Department of Interior over whether Bureau of Land Management ranger John Woychowski can be called as a witness.
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Woychowski's handgun was used to kill Steinle, a 26-year-old San Francisco Bay Area native. The ranger reported it stolen from the backseat of his car a few days before Lopez-Sanchez, 54, said he found it wrapped in a T-shirt on the pier and it accidentally fired as he handled it.
A judge will decide next week whether the BLM ranger is required to honor the state court's subpoena to testify or whether lawyers for Lopez-Sanchez will have to comply with federal guidelines requiring them to ask the agency for permission to question the ranger.
Lopez-Sanchez's lawyer, Matt Gonzalez, said Woychowski can discuss the condition and features of the .40-caliber SIG Sauer P226 handgun.
Gonzalez also said the ranger's testimony is required to show the shooting was the culmination of a series of tragic accidents rather than an intentional act.
"His negligence started the chain of events that resulted in the gun ending up on the pier," Gonzalez told reporters outside court Friday.
Dan Horowitz, a veteran Bay Area criminal defense attorney, said Lopez-Sanchez's lawyers likely want the ranger's testimony to discuss the condition of the gun and whether the position of the trigger and the chambering of bullets could have led to an accidental discharge.
Horowitz also said the defense wants to show the ranger mishandled his firearm "to support their defense that this was a tragedy of errors."
Lopez-Sanchez had been convicted five times of illegally re-entering the United States when the San Francisco sheriff released him from jail after a minor marijuana charge was dismissed. Lopez-Sanchez was released despite a request from federal immigration officials to detain him for possible deportation.
Trump and others seized on Steinle's death to argue that the nation needs tougher immigration policies, including prohibiting cities like San Francisco from refusing to cooperate with federal authorities on deportation matters.
Inside court on Friday, a judge said he hoped to set a trial date for Lopez-Sanchez next week. Prosecutors and defense lawyers said they're ready to start, but so far there's been no available courtroom to hold the trial.
Gonzalez said he hasn't applied for BLM permission for the ranger to testify because the department's application requires the defense to disclose confidential trial strategy.
Woychowski said he stored the loaded handgun in a backpack, which he left in the backseat of his car parked in downtown San Francisco when it was stolen during a period when the city was experiencing an epidemic of car burglaries.
Agency spokeswoman Sarah Webster declined to comment on whether Woychowski was disciplined.
Woychowski, who lives in El Centro, California, about 120 miles (193 kilometers) east of San Diego, did not respond to an email sent to his work address. A listed phone number rang unanswered.
The victim's parents, Jim Steinle and Liz Sullivan, declined comment through their attorney.
In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2015, Jim Steinle blamed "disjointed laws" and "basic incompetence on many levels" for his daughter's death.
"Our family realizes the complexity of immigration laws. However, we feel strongly that some legislation should be discussed, enacted or changed to take these undocumented felons off our streets for good," Steinle told the committee.
Last month, at the urging of Trump, the U.S. House passed a bill known as "Kate's Law" that would impose harsher prison sentences on deportees who re-enter the United States.
The House also passed another bill that would bar federal grants to sanctuary cities and allow victims of crimes committed by immigrants in the country illegally to sue those cities. Both bills await action in the Senate.
A federal judge in May tossed out a wrongful death lawsuit Steinle's family filed against San Francisco for releasing Lopez-Sanchez from jail. The family's lawsuit against BLM was allowed to continue.