May 4, 2006

'Sopranos' actor seeks separate trial in cop slay case

By JIM FITZGERALD Associated Press Writer

"Sopranos" actor Lillo Brancato Jr., who is charged with murder in the killing of a police officer, wants the man who is now his co-defendant to be his key witness instead.

Brancato's lawyer, Mel Sachs, asked a judge Thursday for a separate trial from co-defendant Steven Armento. He said he wants Armento to testify that Brancato did not know Armento was carrying a weapon last Dec. 10 when off-duty Officer Daniel Enchautegui was shot to death.

Prosecutors say Armento was the shooter, but Brancato also is charged with felony murder because both men were allegedly in the midst of a burglary at a Bronx apartment, looking for drugs, when Enchautegui, who lived next door, confronted them and was killed.

"Lillo Brancato has an absolute defense as a matter of law to the murder charge," Sachs said after the court hearing. "He did not know that Armento had a gun. ... Whatever activity he was involved in is a far cry from murder."

Sachs said if the men were tried together, he could not call Armento as a witness "because he has a Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself."

"The only way he could possibly be called as a witness is if it was in fact a separate trial," he said.

State Supreme Court Justice Steven Barrett seemed skeptical of Sachs' motion, asking if Sachs thought Armento would be a willing witness. Armento, 48, shook his head "no" at the defense table.

Sachs also requested that some of Brancato's statements to police in the days immediately after the killing be kept out of any trial. He said because Brancato had been shot twice by Enchautegui before the officer died, his client was in no shape to be making voluntary statements and was not represented by a lawyer.

The judge did not immediately rule on the attorney's requests, giving prosecutors a chance to reply. The case was adjourned until July 11.

Brancato appeared somber in the courtroom, which was jammed with relatives of the accused and the victim, as well as a large contingent of police officers and reporters.

Outside the courthouse, Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, decried the requests made by the defense attorney.

"It's outrageous that these two junkies want the evidence collected and their statements suppressed because they made bad choices," Lynch said. "They both knew there was a weapon being carried."

As for the possibility of one defendant testifying in support of the other, he said, "We encourage these two junkies to turn on each other."

Brancato made his debut starring opposite Robert De Niro in "A Bronx Tale" in 1993 and went on to appear in more than a dozen movies. He also had a recurring role in "The Sopranos" as an aspiring mobster.

Armento allegedly was a low-level Genovese crime family associate with a drug problem and a rap sheet dating to 1979. Brancato befriended him after dating his daughter.

Brancato's life went into a tailspin in the last year, with a pair of drug-related arrests and a disorderly conduct incident just two days before the shooting. He was arrested once for heroin possession, and authorities said he and Armento were hoping to score Valium in the Bronx apartment.

When his father was asked to comment after Thursday's court session, all he could say was, "It's very painful."