Federal ranger’s testimony sought in Steinle murder trial

FILE - This undated photo provided by the San Francisco Police Department shows Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez. It’s been two years since Kate Steinle was randomly gunned down on a busy San Francisco pier in a shooting that set off a fierce national immigration debate. Lopez-Sanchez, the man accused of killing Steinle, is still waiting for his murder trial to be scheduled. He is set to appear in court Friday, July 14, 2017, when a trial date may get set. (San Francisco Police Department via AP, File)

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A federal agency is prohibiting a ranger from testifying about his stolen gun used to kill Kate Steinle, a young Northern California woman whose death reignited the national immigration debate.

Juan Francisco Lopez Sanchez, 54, admits fatally shooting Steinle while she walked with her father on a San Francisco pier crowded with tourists on July 1, 2015, but has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder. He said the shooting was accidental.

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. Woychowski’s handgun killed Steinle. The ranger reported it stolen from the backseat of his car a few days before Lopez-Sanchez said he found it wrapped in a T-shirt on the pier moments before Steinle died.

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 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 San Francisco 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.

President Donald 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. 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 of Representatives 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 undocumented immigrants 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.