On July 26, 2006, Steven Petrilli was allegedly driving a stolen silver van being chased by police after four robberies earlier that night when he ran a stop sign in the city’s Portola District and crashed into Officer Nick-Tomasito Birco’s patrol car.
The crash happened at about 1 a.m. at Cambridge and Felton streets. Birco, who was not part of the original chase, had been responding to assist when his patrol car was struck, careened into a utility pole, and landed on its side. The van crashed into a nearby home.
Petrilli, two other men and Petrilli’s wife had been in the van, police said. All four were arrested at the scene.
Birco, 39, a five-year veteran of the police force assigned to the Bayview Station, was pronounced dead at the hospital.
Petrilli, now 24, is facing several charges including murder, conspiracy, robbery, vehicular manslaughter in the commission of a crime, and flight from a police officer causing death.
The two other men in the van, Carl Lather, 24, and Nicholas Smith, 26, are also charged with murder and are awaiting separate trials. Petrilli’s wife was not charged.
Opening statements in Petrilli’s trial began this morning.
Prosecutors asked jurors to convict him of first-degree murder under the state’s felony-murder rule, which says a person can be convicted of murder by participating in a violent crime that leads to a death.
The defense, however, argued Petrilli was an “easily manipulated” and unwilling participant in the robberies. Defense attorney Lisa Dewberry also said Birco’s car moved into the path of the oncoming van.
“Steven could not have avoided Officer Birco’s car,” she said.
Assistant District Attorney Eric Fleming, however, laid out the evidence he intends to present that proves Birco died “because the defendant fled from a robbery with his co-robbers.”
He said witnesses reported Petrilli drove the suspect vehicle while Lather and Smith would get out and rob the victims.
His evidence included videotaped statements made by Petrilli, Lather and Smith during a break in questioning by homicide detectives in which they admitted to the robberies.
In one segment played to the jury, Petrilli appeared to be concocting an alibi that he had been wearing contact lenses that fell out at some point before his arrest. The defense would have been contrary to reports by robbery witnesses that the van driver wore eyeglasses, according to Fleming.
Defense attorney Dewberry downplayed the tape, saying, “Yes, he made some statements, but he largely tried to stay away from Carl and Nick.”
Fleming also played for jurors a recorded phone call between Petrilli and his wife made when Petrilli was in county jail, just days after his arrest.
During one portion, the couple joked about all the police lights following them during the chase that night along U.S. Highway 280 and onto city streets.
During the chase, the van reached speeds of 85 mph on the highway and 50 mph on residential streets, according to Fleming. Petrilli joked with his wife he was driving so fast because he was trying to get back to their San Francisco home.
“I thought it was Christmas,” he laughed. “I wanted to open my presents.”
He later talked about wanting to kill one of the robbery victims for “snitching.”
During another phone call between the couple five days later, Petrilli’s wife laughed about the multiple times Petrilli crashed into vehicles and finally into a home that night, according to Fleming.
“You went big,” she said.
Fleming said the chase proceeded along Highway 280 from San Francisco down to Colma and back into the city.
“The defendant did not obey a single traffic signal or a stop sign,” Fleming said.
Fleming said the van was traveling 54 mph when it struck Birco’s patrol car. Birco had been trying to lay down spike strips in the roadway to stop the van but decided it was too risky and got back into his vehicle.
Following his arrest, Petrilli told police that one of the other men in the van had been the driver, according to Fleming.
His attorney, Dewberry, said she didn’t dispute that Petrilli was driving the stolen van but maintained, “There is doubt” that he was criminally responsible for Birco’s death.
She told jurors that Petrilli and Lather were longtime friends, but that Petrilli had been in special education all his life and didn’t finish the ninth grade.
Petrilli was “easily manipulated” and suffered from cognitive problems and impulsivity, Dewberry said.
She said Petrilli has an IQ of 65 and an adaptive functioning disorder that prevents him from figuring out “how to get yourself out of trouble” when presented with new or stressful situations.
Lather and Smith, Dewberry said, concocted the plan to rob people that night. She said Petrilli had been both manipulated and threatened.
“Steven didn’t know about their plan,” she said.