SAN FRANCISCO (CBS/BCN) – A judge Tuesday sentenced a San Francisco man to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the murder of a police officer he struck and killed during a car chase in 2006.
San Francisco police Officer Nick-Tomasito Birco, 39, was in his patrol car when he was hit by a stolen van driven by Steven Petrilli on July 26, 2006.
KCBS’ Bob Melrose Reports:
Petrilli and two other men had committed four robberies in the city that night and were fleeing from police, according to prosecutors.
The crash happened at about 1 a.m. at Cambridge and Felton streets during a high-speed chase in which prosecutors said Petrilli ran about 20 stop signs at speeds of over 50 mph.
Petrilli, 24, was convicted by a jury on Sept. 23, 2010, of first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit robbery, robbery, evading police and gross vehicular manslaughter.
Judge Newton Lam Tuesday dismissed defense arguments for a mitigated sentence, noting Petrilli’s prior convictions for auto theft and previous encounters in which he fled from police.
“Mr. Petrilli prided himself on his ability to drive and, in many ways, prided himself on his ability to elude police officers,” Lam said.
Defense attorneys claimed that Petrilli’s IQ of 65 made him vulnerable to the urgings of the other men, Nicholas Smith, 26, and Carl Lather, 25, to take part in the robberies. Both men are still awaiting trial for murder.
“He was exhorted by his friends to participate in this event…and to run when he was being chased by police,” attorney Lisa Dewberry said. She said that Petrilli, who was 19 at the time, had planned to take his wife out on a date that night.
Prosecutor Eric Fleming told Lam that Petrilli had been perfectly capable of making choices that night, and that he could have refused to take part in the robberies and the chase at any time.
“This isn’t some willy-nilly person who someone asked for a ride and then all of a sudden is caught up in one robbery,” Fleming said.
“This is an individual who had choices,” he said.
Lam appeared to agree.
“There was no indication that Mr. Petrilli was suffering from any type of duress,” he said.
At the trial, Fleming played jurors an audiotape of Petrilli’s jail calls to his wife after his arrest, during which they joked and laughed about the chase.
Following the last robbery, Petrilli led officers onto Interstate Highway 280 to South San Francisco, and then back into San Francisco along residential streets.
Birco, while not involved in the original pursuit, had responded without his partner to assist in the chase. He had been monitoring the police radio, but he did not radio in his position.
Birco was struck after Petrilli ran the last stop sign at Cambridge Street.
Interim police Chief Jeff Godown attended Tuesday’s hearing and praised Birco in court as an exemplary civil servant.
Police “come to work every day knowing they’re putting their life on the line,” Godown told Lam prior to sentencing.
“We lost a great officer,” Godown said. “The family has lost a loved one.”
Godown told Lam that sentencing Petrilli to life in prison without the possibility of parole “is still a very light sentence for his actions.”
Birco’s father, Tomasito Birco, who had told reporters after the verdict that he had forgiven Petrilli, reiterated his feelings to the judge Tuesday.
“I would like to say one more time, that forgiveness is not a gift that we give to others, but it is a gift that we give for ourselves,” Birco said.
As he spoke, the elder Birco began crying and Petrilli also broke into tears.
Petrilli then took the witness stand and, repeatedly sobbing, addressed Birco’s family, friends, and the police officers in the courtroom.
“I did not mean for this to happen,” he said. “I was young and stupid.”
Petrilli said he is now a devoted husband and father to his 4-year-old son.
“I did not do this on purpose, this was truly an accident,” he said.
Petrilli then spoke aloud to the slain Officer Birco.
“You and I and God know that I did not mean this,” he said.
Lam then announced his sentence.
“Mr. Petrilli, regret is a powerful thing,” he said. “Redemption is a powerful thing. But we don’t get to redemption until we get to consequence.”
Dewberry said she will appeal the sentence.
(© 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Bay City News contributed to this report.)