December 23, 2008

'Sopranos' actor acquitted in NYPD officer's murder


Lillo Brancato, the former "Sopranos" actor accused of a drug-related burglary and the murder of an off-duty police officer in the Bronx, was found not guilty of both charges Monday.

Brancato's acquittals came on the same day as a mistrial was called of a suspect in the murder of another New York Police Department officer, Russel Timoshenko.

All in all, it was "a day of disappointments in court," city police Commissioner Ray Kelly said.

Brancato, 32, was convicted of a lesser charge of attempted burglary, which carries a maximum of 15 years in prison.

Brancato had descended into a sordid life of drugs and crime despite a career-making break when Robert De Niro chose the then-unknown actor to play his son in the 1993 film "A Bronx Tale," which De Niro directed. Brancato played a boy whose no-nonsense father tries -- but fails -- to shield him from neighborhood mobsters' world of easy money and sudden, deadly violence.

In the 2005 death of Officer Daniel Enchautegui, prosecutors said Brancato and an accomplice, Steven Armento, broke into a basement apartment to steal prescription drugs after a night of drinking at a strip club. Enchautegui, 28, who lived next door, came out to investigate after he heard a window break.

Armento shot the 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.

Enchautegui's sister Yolanda Rosa Nazario, said yesterday she was baffled by the acquittals. "What message is this sending out to the New York City police officers today? It's wrong," she said.

Patrolmen's Benevolent Association head Patrick Lynch found small comfort in the outcome. "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," Lynch said.

Brancato did not visibly react as the Bronx Supreme Court jury verdict was read. Afterward he was led out of court in handcuffs and will remain in custody pending a Jan. 9 hearing. His lawyer, Joseph Tacopina, said Brancato was relieved with the verdict but "there was never going to be smiles. ... This is not a case that warrants that."

In the Timoshenko murder trial, a judge declared a mistrial Monday after a juror fell ill and defense lawyers declined to restart deliberations with an alternate juror.

Lee Woods is accused of murdering Timoshenko, 23, during a traffic stop in July 2007. Another officer was shot and wounded. Woods is one of three men to stand trial in recent weeks in the case. One was acquitted and the other was convicted.

Staff writer Rocco Parascandola contributed to this story, which was supplemented with an Associated Press report.