After 20 Years, Freedom Nears for Man Wrongfully Convicted of Rabbi Murder

By the time one eyewitness was asked to view police lineups in the cold-blooded slaying of a rabbi in Brooklyn in 1990, detectives made it clear who they liked as the killer.

"Pick the guy with the big nose," the witness recalls being told.

That meant David Ranta, who eventually was convicted of murder and has languished behind bars ever since.

Ranta's story is set to change in dramatic fashion on Thursday, when prosecutors say they'll ask a judge to vacate his conviction based on a recent review that cast doubt on witness testimony and concluded detectives had mishandled aspects of the investigation.

If the judge agrees, Ranta, 58, could walk out of the courtroom as a free man. His reversal of fortune was first reported this week by The New York Times.

"I'd lie there in the cell at night and I think: I'm the only one in the world who knows I'm innocent," Ranta told the Times from a Buffalo prison. "I came in here as a 30-something with kids, a mother who was alive. This case killed my whole life."

In paperwork filed in advance of Ranta's appearance in state court in Brooklyn, prosecutors didn't say they think Ranta is innocent. They instead told the judge they want the murder indictment dismissed because they "no longer have sufficient evidence to prove the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt."

The decision by the Brooklyn District Attorney's office has shocked relatives of Rabbi Chaskel Werzberger, a Holocaust survivor and a leader of the Satmar Hasidic community in the Williamsburg neighborhood, said Isaac Abraham, a close family friend. They believe there's still credible evidence Ranta participated, he said.

"For this to happen 23 years later is mind-boggling," Abraham said. "He can only claim he wasn't the shooter but he can never claim he wasn't involved."

The case dates to Feb. 8, 1990, when a gunman botched an attempt to rob a diamond courier in Williamsburg. After the courier escaped unharmed, the man approached Werzberger's parked car, shot him in the forehead, pulled him out of the vehicle and drove away in it.

Thousands attended the rabbi's funeral, and then-Mayor David Dinkins offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to an arrest. After the arrest of Ranta — a drug-addicted, unemployed printer — Hasidic Jews surrounded the car that carried him to jail and chanted, "Death penalty!"

Though no physical evidence linked him to the crime, a jury found Ranta guilty in May 1991 based on witness testimony and circumstantial evidence. He was sentenced to 37 1/2 years in prison.

"Now you people do what you got to do, because I feel this is all a total frame setup," Ranta said at his sentencing. "When I come down on my appeal, I hope to God he brings out the truth because a lot of people are going to be ashamed of themselves."

The case began to unravel after the DA's office launched a review by its newly formed Conviction Integrity Unit in 2011. That same year, a man named Menachem Lieberman had approached Ranta's trial lawyer to tell him he "had uncertainty and discomfort" with his identification of Ranta, and later gave the unit a sworn statement recounting the "big nose" episode.

Other interviews done by the unit suggested an alleged accomplice-turned-prosecution witness — now dead — had pinned the shooting on Ranta to save himself. A woman also repeated claims that her deceased husband privately confessed he was the killer.

The unit also found gaps in police paperwork intended to document their investigation. And Ranta denied he knowingly signed police file folders with statements saying he'd helped plan the robbery.

Ranta "claimed he had signed a blank file folder ... only because he thought it was a form to allow him to make a phone call," court papers said.

One the long-retired detectives from the case, Louis Scarcello, has defended his work.

"I never framed anyone in my life," he said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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