January 10, 2006

Cop-killing hearing brings high emotion


In a dramatic courthouse scene that included hundreds of city cops roaring for the death penalty and the teary-eyed mother of a fallen "Bronx Tale" actor pleading for mercy, the two alleged robbers accused of shooting down a young Bronx patrolman last month were arraigned on murder charges yesterday.

Lillo Brancato Jr., 29, and Steven Armento, 48, both of Yonkers, were each charged with two counts of second-degree murder, first-degree robbery and second-degree criminal possession of a weapon. Armento, the alleged triggerman, was also charged with two counts of first-degree murder.

Both pleaded not guilty before Bronx Supreme Court Judge John Collins.

Armento, dressed in a faded pink polo shirt, sweat pants and white sneakers, mumbled his response twice to the judge, who said he could not hear the defendant in the stone-silent courtroom. Armento repeatedly looked at the table or floor in front of him.

By contrast, Brancato, the actor, wore a black blazer over a white T-shirt and black slacks, said "Not guilty, your honor," and peered around the chestnut-colored courtroom, which was full to capacity.

On the first row sat the family of police officer Daniel Enchautegui, who prosecutors said was fatally shot when he came out of his home to intercept two men breaking into a neighbor's apartment Dec. 10.

Prosecutors said Armento fired one fatal shot, killing the 40th Precinct cop, a three-year-veteran who was 28. Police officials have said that both men confessed to breaking into the house to steal Valium.

Although he was taken away after the arraignment in handcuffs, Brancato, who once played Robert De Niro's son in the classic film "A Bronx Tale," swirled in a highly emotional storm on the sidewalk outside the courthouse.

His attorney, Mel Sachs, said he would move to get Brancato his own trial because he is not guilty of murder. "Lillo Brancato did not shoot the police officer. ... He didn't know that the person he was with had a gun," Sachs said.

Crying on a relative's shoulders, Domenica Brancato, the actor's mother, said: "He's not a killer. He's a good person. He's the best."

"My heart is in pieces," she added.

"I'm very sorry for the police officer," Brancato's father, Lillo Brancato Sr., said. "I'm very sorry for my son."

Around the corner, hundreds of police officers applauded a union official's call for the death penalty for both men, who remain jailed at Rikers Island.

"His choice was to stand with that killer. He's equally as guilty," Pat Lynch, president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, said of Brancato. "Now it's time to make sure there's justice and he never, ever sees the light of day."