Slain Cop's Family Baffled by “Sopranos” Trial Verdict

The jury convicted Lillo Brancato of a lesser charge of attempted burglary

A former "Sopranos" actor has been cleared of second-degree murder in the shooting death of an off-duty policeman during a drunken, late-night search for drugs in Bronx three years ago.

The jury convicted Lillo Brancato of a lesser charge of attempted burglary. He faces from three to 15 years in prison; the former actor could get credit for time served because he has been behind bars nearly three years.

Yolanda Rosa Nazario, sister of the victim, said she was baffled by the verdict.

"What message is this sending out to the New York City police officers today? It's wrong," she said.

"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 showed no reaction as the verdict was read -- his face impassive, his fingers pressed together. His mother, seated a couple rows back in the gallery, began sobbing.

Prosecutors say Brancato and accomplice Steven Armento broke into a basement apartment to steal prescription drugs after a night of drinking at a strip club. Officer Daniel Enchautegui (En-chow-TAY'-gee), who lived next door, 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 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."

Brancato's attorney, Joseph Tacopina, said earlier his client was a perfect candidate for a minimum term. Tacopina said Brancato was relieved with the verdict.

"There was never going to be smiles," he said. "This is not a case that warrants that."

"This will be a second chance for him in life. ... Lillo's committed to taking advantage of it," he added.

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.

Brancato, 32, and Armento, 48, were drinking together at a strip club called the Crazy Horse Cabaret in December 2005 before deciding to break into the basement apartment in a hunt for Valium, prosecutors said.

Brancato testified during the trial there was a never a break-in. He claimed that he had known the owner, a Vietnam veteran, for several years. He also said he had permission to go inside and take painkillers and other pills whenever he felt like it, and didn't know the man had died earlier that year.

The pills were part of a drug problem that he said began when he was "introduced to marijuana" on the set of "A Bronx Tale." He later became hooked on crack and heroin, he said.

He told the jury that while suffering from judgment-impairing heroin withdrawals on the night of the shooting, he accidentally broke the kitchen window of the apartment in a desperate attempt to wake up his old pill-supplier.

"I was becoming dope sick," Brancato testified. "Mentally, I was a mess."

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.

Armento had a handgun and a lengthy rap sheet that dated to 1979, including convictions for possession of stolen property and attempted burglary. Brancato drove the car as they headed down the quiet street in the Bronx, prosecutor said.

Enchautegui, who had just finished a late-night shift, heard the sound of smashing glass next door. He alerted his landlord, dialed 911 to report a possible burglary in progress, then grabbed his badge and a gun and went outside to investigate.

Enchautegui shouted, "Police! Don't move!" Gunfire then erupted.

Enchautegui was struck once in the chest. Armento was hit six times. Brancato, who was unarmed, was shot twice.

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