Under the glare of off-duty police officers packing a Bronx courtroom, “Sopranos” actor Lillo Brancato Jr. and a co-defendant were arraigned Monday on charges that they killed a policeman who confronted them during a burglary.
Scores of other officers who couldn’t squeeze into the gallery milled in the hallway during the five-minute session, applauding as the slain officer’s parents entered and left the courtroom.
Brancato, 29, and Steven Armento, 48, pleaded not guilty to charges of second-degree murder, burglary and weapon possession before state Supreme Court Justice John Collins. Armento, accused of being the triggerman, also was charged with two counts of first-degree murder in the Dec. 10 killing of Officer Daniel Enchautegui, who was shot while off duty.
Both defendants entered the courtroom with their hands cuffed behind them. Enchautegui’s father, Pedro, sat in a wheelchair in the center aisle near his wife, Maria.
Prosecutors say the defendants told police that they had been together at a strip club before deciding to break into a Bronx apartment in search of prescription drugs. Enchautegui, who lived next door, confronted them in an alley.
Brancato has said that Armento opened fire after Enchautegui identified himself as a police officer and ordered them to freeze, authorities say.
Enchautegui was hit once in the chest. The mortally wounded officer returned fire, striking Brancato twice and Armento six times. There was no obvious sign of the defendants’ injuries, but lawyers for both men told the judge that their clients needed medical attention in jail. Neither lawyer requested bail.
“Lillo Brancato is not a murderer,” Brancato’s lawyer, Mel Sachs, said as he left the courthouse with the defendant’s family. “Lillo Brancato is not criminally responsible. Lillo Brancato did not have a weapon and did not know there was a weapon.”
Armento’s lawyer, William Flack, didn’t say what kind of defense he might put forward. “We’re just starting out,” Flack said.
Brancato made his debut in 1993 in “A Bronx Tale,” starring opposite Robert De Niro, 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 was a low-level Genovese crime family associate until he was banished for drug addiction, authorities have said. 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.