'Sopranos' actor goes on trial

32-year-old who played novice mobster accused of killing off-duty police officer
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The Independent US

Prosecutors in New York urged a jury yesterday to convict a former actor from The Sopranos of second degree murder for his part in a botched prescription medicines burglary nearly two years ago that ended in a gunfight and the killing of an off-duty police officer.

Lillo Brancato Jnr, who appeared as a novice wiseguy, Matt Bevilaqua, in the HBO drama series about Mafia boss Tony Soprano, faces charges of second degree murder for his part in the killing in December 2005 of a New York police officer, Daniel Enchautegui. Mr Enchautegui was killed in the front drive of his home in the Bronx after coming across Mr Brancato and another man apparently attempting to steal prescription drugs from the apartment of a neighbour. The second burglar, Steven Armento, drew a gun and killed Enchautegui, but not before the police officer had unholstered his gun, firing off bullets that wounded both his assailants.

In their opening arguments, government prosecutors said that the two men were engaged in a desperate attempt to steal prescription pills to feed their shared drug habit when they were interrupted in the dark by the off-duty officer. Lawyers for the 32-year-old actor countered, however, that their client was unarmed during the break-in and that only Armento had wielded a weapon. They said that it followed that it was Mr Brancato's friend alone who was the culprit in the killing. Their client, they added, did not know that his friend was carrying a gun.

In his opening statement, Mr Brancato's lawyer Joseph Tacopina said: "Lillo was there to satisfy his addiction. But he wasn't there to do violence - and that's important."

The trial is sure to capture the attention of New Yorkers, who are used to a blurred line between the fictional Mafia as portrayed on the screen, and the reality of their presence on the city's streets. But for a young actor who built his career being cast in gangland films, to find himself on both sides of this dividing line is surely unusual.

There is the additional irony that the killing took place in the Bronx. Mr Brancato's resumé includes details of how he first made the big-time in Hollywood, appearing while in his late teens opposite Robert De Niro in the 1993 film A Bronx Tale, also about Mafia machinations in the New York borough.

Mr Brancato's trial starts in the immediate wake of Armento's conviction. The 51-year-old was found guilty by a different jury on 30 October of first degree murder and was sentenced earlier this month to life in prison without the chance of parole.

Among those who have spoken out for Mr Brancato in advance of the trial has been his father, Lillo Brancato Snr. "He never killed nobody," he told reporters earlier this month. "I support him 100 per cent." He also spoke of his grief for the family of the dead police officer.

"What can I say? I'm sorry," the older Mr Brancato offered, before going on to defend his son again as someone who would be incapable of murder. "My son had no gun in his hand ... I've got one son who's a hunter. But Lillo, he's never touched a gun in his life."

Before the trial even started, the judge in the case turned down a request from the defence to disallow physical evidence collected by the prosecution showing tiny shards of glass in the boots worn by the accused. For a conviction, prosecutors must demonstrate that Mr Brancato committed the burglary that preceded the killing. They will tell the jury that the glass shows the actor kicked in the window of the apartment next door.

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