Judgement Day for “Sopranos” actor

Tomorrow, Lillo Brancato Jr. of Yonkers learns his fate.

Brancato, as you may know, is the 32-year-old teen star of “A Bronx Tale” and bit-player on “The Sopranos” who was convicted of trying to break into a Bronx drug den in December 2005 — a crime that led to the shooting death of an off-duty NYPD officer who lived next door.

Steve Armento, another Yonkers guy, is serving life in prison for pulling the trigger. But Brancato’s jury acquitted him of being Armento’s murder accomplice but found the admitted junkie guilty of attempted burglary.

The judge, Martin Marcus, has a lot of leeway in sentencing. Brancato, who has spent the past three years behind bars awaiting trial, could get time served and be released. Or he could spend another decade locked up. No matter what, there’s going to be some upset cops and family members inside that courtroom.

Since I started covering the Brancato trial, friends have repeatedly asked me who Brancato played on “The Sopranos.” I’ve never watched the show, but IMDB.com tells me that in 2000, he portrayed wannabe mobster Matt Bevilaqua in six episodes.

Clarkstown Justice Court Clerk Retires

After 22-plus years of sitting at the right-side of one Clarkstown judge or another, Joann Geary has packed up memories and momentos and taken them into retirement.

The chief clerk for the county’s busiest town court retired on Dec. 31, 2008, ending a career of serving the public with respect – even if that service always meant taking money for parking or traffic tickets or advising people on when to appear in court.

All told, Geary worked 25 years with the court system, including time in White Plains.

During her career, Geary has witnesses numerous criminal case. The cases have run from the “Night Court” comical to the bizarre and the sad. The cases range from drunken driving and assaults to rapes and murders. Justice courts handle arraignments and hearing on felony cases before a grand jury decision.

“It’s been extremely interesting,” Geary said before her retirement day. “I am going to miss the flow of it all.”

Referring generally to people and cases before the court, she said, “You can’t make stuff up that some people do.”

She has clerked for numerous justices over the years, many of whom were different in personality and approached to the law. Her final year ended on the a sad note with the death of Justice Joel Flick.

“He was a good man,” Geary said. “One sentence that defined him and one he always told defendants. ‘You have the keys to your future in your pocket. How you use them is up to you.”

Now, Geary will use her keys to drive into retirement, spending time with her family.

“Insurmountable ethical problems”

That’s why accused parent killer Jason Bethea of Peekskill didn’t get arraigned today. is getting a new lawyer on Thursday.

Some background: Bethea is charged with fatally beating his mom and stepdad — Cathy and Thomas Asaro — and then setting their house ablaze last year. He was arrested on Murder 2 charges, but a grand jury recently indicted him on two counts of Murder 1. The difference? A Murder 1 conviction sends you to prison for life with no chance of parole. Murder 2 gives you a chance at parole after 25 years.

So today, Westchester Legal Aid Society lawyer Harvey Loeb, who had the unenviable task of representing Bethea, entered a not guilty plea for his client at the arraignment before state Supreme Court Justice Lester Adler. Bethea seemed shocked to learn that the grand jury upped the murder charge and started arguing with Loeb in open court.

The judge second-called the case so Loeb and Bethea could talk privately. When Bethea was brought back into court, Loeb asked the judge to remove the Legal Aid Society him from the case, citing “insurmountable ethical problems.” Adler agreed and told Bethea he would get a new attorney.

Whatever defense lawyer gets this case will be going up against prosecutor Tim Ward, who told the judge he has audio and video evidence against Bethea. Upon learning this, Bethea’s stepmom left the courtroom in tears.

Bethea is facing two counts each of Murder 1 and Murder 2 for the Asaro deaths, a felony arson charge for the house fire and an additional Murder 2 charge connected to the arson.

Appeals Panel Upholds Spring Valley Man’s drug Conviction

A state appeals panel last month upheld the drug and weapon possession convictions of a Spring Valley man sentenced during 2006  to seven years as a repeat felony offender.

Horace Shackleford, now 27, will remain in Oneida Correctional Facility until December 2011 at the earliest.

The Appellate Division ruled acting State Supreme Court Justice Catherine Bartlett had wide discretion to determine the testimony of the Spring Valley police officers Frances Brooke and Joseph Brown was credibility, along with other evidence, to convict Shackleford of third-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance and third-degree criminal possession of a weapon.

Bartlett has not always looked favorably at Spring Valley police investigations in other cases, including those involving drug arrests and investigation into possible corruption.

“Contrary to the defendant’s contention, the record in this case amply supports the hearing court’s determination to credit police testimony, as well as the court’s factual findings that the vehicle in which the defendant was riding as a passenger was lawfully stopped for a traffic infraction,” the panel wrote in a decision released Dec. 3.

Following the car stop,  Brown ended up patting down Shackleford and finding a bag inside his jacket. Brown felt the bag contained a heavy metal object. The officer  testified that the object in the bag did not feel like a gun, “but you can’t determine what it feels like.”

The panel ruled the officers took reasonable action to remove Shackleford from the car and pat him down based on his hand movements and refusal to follow police directions.

The panel also ruled that since  Brown could not rule out the possibility that the object was a weapon, he was justified in seizing the bag.

Brown and Brooke subsequently inspected the contents of the bag and found a metal scale and a large white rock substance that appeared to be crack cocaine. The officers’ search of the bag within the defendant’s grabbable reach was a proper safety precaution under the circumstances, the panel ruled.

Shackleford previously served 1 to 3 years in prison for a drug possession conviction in Ulster County, being released in 2005.

Back in court after the break

After a weeklong holiday recess, Westchester County courts are heating up with some high-profile cases to kick off 2009.

Today, Nyanda Charley got 18 years to life in prison for murdering a Mount Vernon security guard on Halloween 2007. Despite the fact that he pleaded guilty to murder three months ago, he stood in court today and said he didn’t do it. The judge didn’t believe him.

Tomorrow’s calendar brings another violent slaying to court. Jason Bethea is to be arraigned in the beating deaths of his mother, Cathy Asaro, and her husband, Thomas Asaro, in their Peekskill home back in September. Bethea, 32, is facing murder charges and is accused of setting the couple’s Peekskill house on fire after killing them.