Sopranos actor cleared of policeman's murder

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Former Sopranos actor Lillo Brancato was cleared of second-degree murder over the shooting of an off-duty policeman during a drunken, late-night search for drugs.

The jury convicted Brancato, 32, of a lesser charge of attempted burglary over the incident in New York City's Bronx district three years ago.

He faces three to 15 years in prison but could get credit for time served because he has been behind bars for nearly three years.

Brancato showed no reaction as the verdict was read, but his mother, seated in the gallery, began sobbing.

Prosecutors say Brancato and accomplice Steven Armento, 48, broke into a basement apartment to steal prescription drugs after a night of drinking at a strip club. Officer Daniel Enchautegui, 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.

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."

New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said: "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 was led out of court in handcuffs. He will be sentenced on January 9 and District Attorney Robert Johnson said he would seek "the maximum sentence that the law allows".

Brancato's lawyer Joseph Tacopina said earlier his client was a perfect candidate for a minimum term.

He 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."

Brancato rose to fame in the 1993 movie A Bronx Tale, playing a youngster torn between two worlds and two men - a local mobster 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 apartment in a hunt for Valium, prosecutors said.

The pills were part of a drug problem that Brancato 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.

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