A San Francisco Superior Court jury this afternoon will begin weighing whether a man accused of striking and killing a police officer in 2006 while fleeing police in a stolen van should be convicted of murder. Attorneys completed their closing arguments in the trial of 24-year-old Steven Petrilli, of San Francisco, this morning. Petrilli was driving the van that struck Officer Nick-Tomasito
Birco’s patrol car early on the morning of July 26, 2006. He and three others in the van were arrested afterward. Birco was pronounced dead at a hospital shortly after the crash. Prosecutor Eric Fleming asked the jury to convict Petrilli – who he said was part of a “pack of wolves” hunting robbery victims that night – of first-degree murder. The charge is based on the state’s felony-murder rule, which allows those who participate in certain violent felonies, including robbery, that result in a death, to be charged with murder. The fourth and final robbery of which Petrilli is accused that night occurred at about 12:30 p.m. in the Bayview District. Minutes after the robbery, police spotted the van at a nearby McDonald’s and began a high-speed chase through three cities that ended with the crash at Cambridge and Felton streets in San Francisco at 1 a.m. Petrilli, who was on felony probation at the time and had fled police on three prior occasions, ran about 20 stop signs during the chase, including the last one, before striking Birco’s car at 56 mph, Fleming said. Defense attorneys for Petrilli have argued that Petrilli was under threat from two other men in the van who had been committing the robberies. Petrilli has a very low IQ and was coerced and manipulated by the others, defense attorneys said. Further, they argued, Birco, who had responded to the chase without his partner and was monitoring the van’s whereabouts on his radio, for some reason drifted into the path of the speeding van. Birco, who suffered from heart problems and was obese, may have had a fatal heart attack before his car was hit, defense attorneys said. Defense attorneys argued that police and prosecutors ignored evidence in order to convict Petrilli of an officer’s murder. “No matter how bad the San Francisco Police Department wants to make Steven pay, he didn’t kill Officer Birco,” defense attorney Lisa Dewberry said. Fleming said the defense’s “conspiracy” theory “makes no sense.” “What he deserves is to be accountable for whatever crimes he committed that night,” Fleming told the jury. “He’s not an innocent man,” Fleming said.
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