Kate Steinle Killing: Mexican Immigrant Who Inspired Trump's Wall Denies Murder

A large photo of Kate Steinle is shown while her dad, Jim Steinle, testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on July 21, 2015, in Washington, D.C. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The killing of a young woman on a San Francisco pier two years ago was thrown into the political spotlight by President Donald Trump as he geared up his then-fledgling presidential campaign with hard-line anti-immigrant rhetoric.

On Monday, the trial of the Mexican immigrant accused of the killing started in San Francisco.

Kate Steinle, 32, was shot dead while walking on the pier with her father on July 1, 2015.

The man accused of the killing, Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, claims he found a gun wrapped in a T-shirt under a bench, and it discharged accidentally, reported the Associated Press. The weapon was stolen from a vehicle and belonged to an agent from the Bureau of Land Management.

But prosecutors claim that Zarate carelessly aimed the weapon at Steinle. He is charged with second-degree murder and has pleaded not guilty.

Zarate had been deported several times and was convicted of illegal re-entry to the U.S. At the time of Steinle's killing, he had just been released from a San Francisco jail after being arrested on a minor drugs charge.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had requested Zarate be kept detained by police, but he was released under the city's sanctuary laws. A sanctuary city is one that limits its cooperation with federal immigration authorities.

Steinle's killing provoked debate about illegal immigration into the U.S., and Trump leapt on it as he pushed strict anti-immigrant policies in his bid to secure the GOP presidential nomination.

"This man, or this animal, that shot that wonderful, that beautiful woman in San Francisco, this guy was pushed back by Mexico," Trump told CNN in July 2015. "Mexico pushes back people across the border that are criminals, that are drug dealers." Only weeks before, Trump had launched his candidacy as a rank outsider, describing immigrants living in the country illegally as "in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists."

Trump went on to unveil the campaign promise that defined his candidacy—the construction of a wall along the Mexican-U.S. border designed to prevent immigrants from entering the country illegally.

At a rally in Youngstown, Ohio, in June, Trump again invoked Steinle's name, hailing the passage of a House bill that would crack down on sanctuary cities, as well as a bill dubbed Kate's Law that would introduce severer penalties for immigrants who re-enter the country illegally after deportation.

"Sanctuary cities legislation has passed the House, along with Kate's Law, named for Kate Steinle, who was brutally killed by a five-time-deported illegal immigrant. We are asking the Senate to vote on sanctuary cities and Kate's Law legislation. We've got to get it passed," Trump told the crowd.

But as the story snowballed into one of the defining modern political issues, the question of Zarate's innocence or guilt remains to be decided.

Assistant District Attorney Diana Garcia on Monday accused Zarate of pointing the gun at Steinle or the crowd, reported The San Francisco Chronicle.

"She's dead because this man," she told jurors.

Defense attorney Matt Gonzalez told the jurors "this was a tragedy and an accident," calling it a "freakish ricochet."

The trial continues.