Judge frees man convicted of killing rabbi - Los Angeles News | FOX 11 LA KTTV

Judge frees man convicted of killing rabbi

Posted: Updated:
In this Feb. 12, 1990 photo, mourners carry the coffin bearing the remains of Rabbi Haskel Werzberger in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. David Ranta, the man convicted for the murder, was freed on March 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Mark D. Phillips, File) In this Feb. 12, 1990 photo, mourners carry the coffin bearing the remains of Rabbi Haskel Werzberger in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. David Ranta, the man convicted for the murder, was freed on March 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Mark D. Phillips, File)

By TOM HAYS

NEW YORK (AP) — A man who spent more than two decades behind bars for the cold-blooded slaying of a Brooklyn rabbi was released Thursday into the arms of his weeping relatives after a reinvestigation by prosecutors cast serious doubt on evidence used to convict him.

"Sir, you are free to go," a judge told a smiling, white-haired David Ranta moments after prosecutors announced they supported tossing out the 1991 conviction.

Ranta's pregnant daughter — a 2-year-old when he was jailed — sisters and other supporters burst into applause and swarmed him as he walked out of the courtroom. His parents had died while he was in prison.

"I'm overwhelmed," the 58-year-old Ranta told reporters. "I feel like I'm under water, swimming."

The dramatic turnabout came after the Brooklyn district attorney's office filed paperwork on Wednesday saying it supported a defense motion to vacate the murder conviction and dismiss the indictment. After a recent review, they said they "no longer have sufficient evidence to prove the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt."

Before releasing Ranta, Judge Miriam Cyrulnik offered an apology: "To say I'm sorry for what you've endured would be an understatement. ... But I say it anyway."

Ranta had claimed he had been rotting in a Buffalo prison for no reason.

"Like I said from the beginning, I had nothing to do with this case," he said outside court.

Prosecutors admitted the case against Ranta was now too "degraded" to hold up in court. But unlike case where convicts are exonerated by new DNA evidence, they stopped well short of conceding his innocence.

"That's a good question," prosecutor John O'Mara, who heads the DA's Conviction Integrity Unit, said when asked by reporters who killed the rabbi. "It may have been this defendant, it may not have been this defendant."

The case dated 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 the car of Rabbi Chaskel Werzberger — a Holocaust survivor and a leader of the Satmar Hasidic community — 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, Hasidic Jews surrounded the car that carried him to jail and chanted, "Death penalty!"

No physical evidence linked the unemployed drug addict to the crime and the diamond courier never identified him as the bandit. But a jury found him guilty anyway based on witness testimony and circumstantial evidence. He was sentenced to 37½ years in prison.

The case began to unravel after newly formed Conviction Integrity Unit began its review 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 how a detective had told him to "pick the one with the big nose" — Ranta — out of a police lineup.

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.

The decision by the Brooklyn district attorney's office to support tossing out the conviction shocked relatives of Werzberger, 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."

One long-retired detective from the case, Louis Scarcella, has defended his work.

"I never framed anyone in my life," he told the New York Post this week. "You have to be a low devil to frame someone. I sleep well at night."

Asked about Scarcella on Thursday, Ranta trial attorney Michael Baum said: "I think he saw a chance to solve a high-profile case at any cost. ... He's a cowboy."

 

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.

  • Brooklyn NewsBrooklyn NewsMore>>

  • Five Guys offers bacon milkshakes

    Five Guys offers bacon milkshakes

    Wednesday, August 20 2014 6:47 PM EDT2014-08-20 22:47:08 GMT
    Burger chain Five Guys is testing the adage that everything tastes better with bacon. It is rolling out a customizable milkshake program and along with bananas, peanut butter, Oreo cookies, salted caramel, you can chose bacon.  Yes that's right: a bacon milkshake.
    Burger chain Five Guys is testing the adage that everything tastes better with bacon. It is rolling out a customizable milkshake program and along with bananas, peanut butter, Oreo cookies, salted caramel, you can chose bacon.  Yes that's right: a bacon milkshake.
  • Cardinal, leaders meet about NYPD-community relations

    Cardinal, leaders meet about NYPD-community relations

    Wednesday, August 20 2014 6:43 PM EDT2014-08-20 22:43:05 GMT
    Timothy Cardinal Dolan gathered religious and city leaders with the focus of how to ease tensions between police and the community in advance of this Saturday's march to protest the death of Eric Garner. Some of the leaders in this group are rarely photographed together, let alone seated at the same table. But they were brought together over concerns about possible protest violence by the cardinal, one of the most powerful figures in the city and who commands respect across the board.
    Timothy Cardinal Dolan gathered religious and city leaders with the focus of how to ease tensions between police and the community in advance of this Saturday's march to protest the death of Eric Garner. Some of the leaders in this group are rarely photographed together, let alone seated at the same table. But they were brought together over concerns about possible protest violence by the cardinal, one of the most powerful figures in the city and who commands respect across the board.
  • New York's daring Instagrammers

    New York's daring Instagrammers

    Wednesday, August 20 2014 6:03 PM EDT2014-08-20 22:03:35 GMT
    Pull out your smartphone on any given day, tap on Instagram and you'll find a lot of selfies. But while the rest of us clog our feeds with our best pouty faces, a group of photographers scales and then hangs off bridges and buildings in a contest to produce the most daring photograph in New York City.
    Pull out your smartphone on any given day, tap on Instagram and you'll find a lot of selfies. But while the rest of us clog our feeds with our best pouty faces, a group of photographers scales and then hangs off bridges and buildings in a contest to produce the most daring photograph in New York City.
Powered by WorldNow

KTTV FOX 11
1999 S. Bundy Dr.
Los Angeles CA 90025

Main: (310) 584-2000
News Tips? (310) 584-2025

Didn't find what you were looking for?
All content © Copyright 2000 - 2014 Fox Television Stations, Inc. and Worldnow. All Rights Reserved.
Privacy Policy | New Terms of Service What's new | Ad Choices