'Sopranos' actor cleared of murder charge


NEW YORK – A slain police officer's sister reacted with disgust after a jury cleared a former actor on "The Sopranos" of her brother's killing during a botched burglary three years ago.

Lillo Brancato Jr. on Monday was convicted of a lesser charge of attempted burglary. He faces 3-15 years in prison; the former actor could get credit for time served because he has been behind bars nearly three years.

"What message is this sending out to the New York City police officers today? It's wrong," said Yolanda Rosa Nazario, sister of the victim.

Prosecutors said Brancato, 32, and accomplice Steven Armento broke into a basement apartment to steal prescription drugs after a night of drinking at a strip club in December 2005. Officer Daniel Enchautegui, who lived next door and was off duty, came out to investigate.

Armento blasted the 28-year-old officer with his .357 Magnum, hitting him in the heart. The dying officer fired back, wounding both men. Armento was convicted earlier this year of first-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Brancato, who acknowledges problems with drugs and alcohol, said he was unaware Armento, 48, was carrying a weapon. He also argued he did not directly take part in the killing and was not armed.

During the gunbattle, Enchautegui was struck once and Armento was hit six times. Brancato, who drove the car to the apartment, was shot twice.

Brancato was led out of court in handcuffs. His sentencing is Jan. 9, and District Attorney Robert T. Johnson said he would seek "the maximum sentence that the law allows."

"This would not have happened if not for this animal's drug habit," said Patrolmen's Benevolent Association head Patrick Lynch. "The only good thing is that this skunk is not walking out to spend Christmas with his family. The sad part is that neither is Daniel."

Said Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly: "We hope that the family and friends of Daniel Enchautegui find some comfort in the fact that at least one in the pair responsible for his death was convicted of murder."

Brancato rose to fame in the 1993 movie "A Bronx Tale," playing a young kid from the neighborhood who is torn between two worlds and two men: a local mobster played by Chazz Palminteri and his straight-and-narrow bus-driver father, played by Robert De Niro.

Other roles followed, most notably a stint on the second season of "The Sopranos," where he played a bumbling aspiring mobster. His character carried out a series of low-level crimes for the New Jersey mob before being gunned down by Tony Soprano and his sidekick as he tearfully begged for his life.

During the trial, Brancato tried to deflect suggestions by the prosecution that his testimony -- at times punctuated by vignettes about his drug-crazed downfall -- was another acting job.

Brancato's attorney, Joseph Tacopina, said his client was relieved with the verdict. "There was never going to be smiles," he said. "This is not a case that warrants that."
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