Attorneys spar as Petrilli murder trial draws to close

Prosecution and defense attorneys sparred today about whether a 24-year-old man accused in the killing of a San Francisco police officer during a police chase four years ago should be convicted of murder.

Closing arguments began this morning in the San Francisco Superior Court trial of Steven Petrilli, of San Francisco, and will continue Tuesday.

Petrilli is charged with murder, evading police, robbery, conspiracy to commit robbery, and gross vehicular manslaughter.

In the early morning hours of July 26, 2006, Petrilli was driving a stolen van with three other passengers after allegedly committing four separate street robberies in the city.

After leading police on a high-speed chase through San Francisco, the van struck the patrol car of Officer Nick-Tomasito Birco, who was responding to the area, at the intersection of Cambridge and Felton streets in the Portola District.

Birco, a five-year veteran of the police force, was pronounced dead at the hospital.

Two of Petrilli's passengers are also awaiting trial for murder. Charges against the third passenger, Petrilli's wife, were dropped.

Prosecutor Eric Fleming argued to jurors today that they should convict Petrilli of first-degree murder under the state's felony-murder rule.

Fleming said that Petrilli had willingly participated in the robberies and was actively fleeing the scene of the last robbery when he blew through a stop sign at 56 mph and hit Birco's car.

“That was the choice that he made,” Fleming said.

Defense attorney Lisa Dewberry told jurors that Petrilli “was compelled to drive that van under duress” and was not responsible for Birco's death.

Dewberry argued that two other men in the van had hatched the robbery plan and coerced Petrilli into driving. She said Petrilli has a very low IQ and was manipulated.

When police spotted the van at a McDonald's near the last robbery and Petrilli drove off, one of the men threatened Petrilli with a gun and told him to keep driving, Dewberry said.

“He ran because he was made to do so,” Dewberry said.

Fleming disputed that notion.

“Mr. Petrilli had every opportunity to say, 'That's enough,'” he said.

Petrilli, who was on felony probation and had fled from police on three prior occasions, was simply doing what he always did in that situation, Fleming argued.

The attorneys further disagreed about whether the crash was actually what killed Birco, who suffered from heart problems and was obese.

Petrilli's other attorney, Susan Leff, suggested there was evidence Birco might have suffered a fatal heart attack as he was driving to the area.

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