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Life imitates art: 'Sopranos' star heads to trial

By Matt Bean
Court TV

NEW YORK (Court TV) -- If A.J. Soprano had been arrested last Fourth of July after getting high and robbing two teenage tourists, it might have seemed like a logical progression for the son of the world's most famous TV mobster. He'd already been expelled from school and busted for drug use.

But it was A.J's portrayer, Robert Iler, a 16-year-old with no criminal record, who was arrested by the New York City Police Department.

According to New York police, Iler and three friends robbed two teenage tourists of $40 shortly before midnight on July 3, 2001, after asking them if they "wanted to die." Iler, who police found with a pipe and less than a gram of marijuana, will go to court to argue his case on April 1, 2002.

Compared to the standard "Sopranos" fare, Iler's bust was small time. He could have accepted a plea bargain that would have reduced his charge to a misdemeanor of petty theft, saving him jail time.

Instead, Iler decided to fight the charges. Now facing a 15-year sentence if convicted, he's gone the way his fictional father might have on television, hiring a high-powered lawyer who has fought on numerous fronts to have the charge quashed.

Iler's lawyer, Robert Morvillo -- who also defended financial rogue Michael Milkin -- has filed a phalanx of papers in an attempt to get his client's case dismissed. In pretrial documents, Morvillo argued for dismissal because the case runs counter to "interests of justice," and even because the case could jeopardize his client's future as an actor.

But New York State Supreme Court Judge Bonnie Wittner, who is presiding over Iler's case, soundly dismissed both notions. Wittner ruled that "no compelling factor which clearly demonstrates that prosecution of the indictment would be an injustice exists in this case," and pointed out that the plea bargain would spare Iler any jail time and therefore allow him to continue his career unfettered.

Reached at his Manhattan office, Morvillo declined to discuss the case.

The crime

The stretch of Manhattan's York Avenue where police say Iler and his compatriots committed the robbery seems an unlikely spot for such a crime. The row of low-rise apartments, groceries and other businesses between 74th and 75th streets, like much of the Upper East Side, cater to the monied and mannered elite.

By day, the sidewalks are crowded with dog walkers, school children and elderly women in fur coats, and by night the streets, though quiet, seem safe.

But in the late hours of July 3, 2001, police say Iler and his friends, Michael Cournede, 19, and Alban Selimaj, 16, along with a 15-year-old who has not been named, robbed two teenage tourists of $40, threatening them with their lives.

In statements, the defendants all agreed on their intent that evening: To watch fireworks and then go to John Jay Park, a popular hangout for Upper East Side teenagers. But their accounts of the alleged robbery diverge.

Iler's lawyers have said that the teen star was busy talking to a female friend up the block while the others committed the robbery. "I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time," Iler told the Daily News two days after his arrest.

Iler's lawyers have tried to shift the blame to another defendant, Michael Cournede, who was arrested three months earlier for allegedly mugging another teen-ager. Cournede could get up to 25 years in prison if convicted of the July 3 crime.

Whether Iler was involved, or only learned of the crime after the fact as he has claimed, police arrested him that night along with his friends after receiving a 911 call from the two victims.

Iler was immediately defiant, according to police. "F*** you. Don't worry about me. I'm a millionaire," he told one officer, according to a police document.

In the months after his arrest, Iler's coworkers spoke out in his favor. Even James Gandolfini, who plays Iler's onscreen dad Tony Soprano, put in a good word for his co-star.

"Contrary to his fictional role, Robert has consistently impressed me with his respect for others," Gandolfini wrote in a letter to judge Bonnie Wittner. "Even if the press reports are accurate, it would be unfortunate if what is at most a momentary lapse in judgment results in a criminal record that could harm Robert's reputation and his opportunity to make a future for himself."

Any press is good?

Youthful indiscretion or no, Simon Applebaum, senior editor with cable industry publication Multi Channel News, said Iler might have done well to take the plea bargain.

Plea agreements, Applebaum says, have allowed other celebrities who have run afoul of the law, such as Paula Poundstone and Robert Downey Jr., to get their careers back on track.

"Depending on the sentencing this judge could give him the vehicle to do the same thing," Applebaum said.

But a longtime Hollywood manager who spoke to Court TV on condition of anonymity said that pleading guilty could even help Iler's draw. "People sometimes like the bad boys," said the source, who has spent more than 40 years in the business casting and managing actors.

For Applebaum, however, the simplest explanation might be the best: "If he has a good case," the editor said, "maybe the best thing he can do is just clear his name."




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