Was The Sopranos star Lillo Brancato guilty of murder?
Young Lillo Brancato Jr had a glittering acting career ahead of him.
After starring in Robert De Niro’s 1994 movie A Bronx Tale at just 17, he went on, at 22, to land a role in hit TV show The Sopranos.
It was every actor’s dream, and paved the way for Brancato to take his acting talent to the next level, and possibly Hollywood superstardom.
Instead, he ended up making a name for himself for all the wrong reasons…
His aspiration of hitting the big time began to go down the pan at the same time he started dabbling in class-A drugs.
Records show that, in June 2004, he was found with a stash of heroin after a routine traffic stop by police.
It didn’t take long for full-blown addiction to take hold, and for Brancato to become more concerned with getting his next fix than landing his next big role.
But his real fall from grace unfolded one fateful night in December 2005.
Brancato, then 29, had been drinking in a strip club in the Bronx area of New York with friend Steven Armento, then 48.
But alcohol alone wasn’t going to cut it. They wanted to get high, too. So, at around 5am, they hatched a doomed plan to break into the house of a friend who had previously supplied them with drugs.
It wasn’t far off the type of storyline Brancato might’ve played in his on-screen role as a gangster.
Except this was real life…
The two men kicked in a window to gain entry to the house – but the sound of shattering glass alerted neighbour and off-duty police officer Daniel Enchautegui, 28.
Officer Enchautegui grabbed his coat and his semi-automatic pistol and went to investigate.
Just before he reached the neighbouring property, he called 911 for back-up.
While he waited for colleagues to arrive, he stood on the street outside and watched carefully.
Soon, Brancato and Armento emerged from the home.
‘Police! Don’t move! Police! Don’t move!’ Officer Enchautegui shouted.
But, instead of freezing, Armento pulled out his revolver and opened fire, shooting the policeman in the chest. Officer Enchautegui collapsed after managing to return six shots.
Two hit Brancato in the chest, and four hit Armento. The pair were wounded, but managed to start hobbling away.
Minutes later, the police back-up arrived to find Brancato bleeding in the middle of the street.
He was found to be unarmed, and was promptly arrested.
Armento was found nearby, still with the gun in his hand. He obeyed orders to drop it, and was also taken into custody.
Meanwhile, Officer Enchautegui was rushed into hospital, where doctors tried but failed to save his life.
New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg described the police officer’s death as a ‘devastating loss’.
‘He did everything he could, just as he was trained to,’ he said.
Brancato and Armento were also treated in hospital for their wounds before being remanded in custody.
During questioning, Armento admitted that it was he who’d fired the single shot that had killed Officer Enchautegui.
It was a clear-cut case, and, at trial, Armento was found guilty of murder, and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
But, for Lillo Brancato, it was less straightforward…
Prosecutors argued that he was guilty of ‘felony murder’.
Because of laws in the United States, it was possible for it to be argued that, even though it wasn’t Brancato who pulled the trigger, he was responsible for the murder because his actions led to the death of another person.
At trial, jurors heard about the events of the night of the bungled burglary.
To pin murder charges on Brancato, prosecutors needed to prove that he knew his friend was carrying a gun.
He denied it.
However, prosecutors brought forward a witness who testified that Armento had brandished his firearm earlier that night, and that Brancato was there at the time.
But was that enough evidence to convince the jury that the actor was guilty of felony murder?
The jury acquitted Lillo Brancato of the murder charge, but found him guilty of attempted burglary.
He was sentenced to 10 years in jail by Justice Martin Marcus of State Supreme Court in the Bronx, who said that, while the actor’s addiction was sad, it didn’t excuse his actions.
‘I cannot ignore the fact that, as a result of the attempted burglary of which you were convicted, a brave, young police officer is dead,’ he said.
Lillo Brancato spent eight years behind bars before his release from jail in 2013.