By Charisma L. Miller
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
A man who spent more than two decades behind bars was freed by a judge on Thursday after a reinvestigation of his case cast serious doubt on evidence used to convict him in the shooting of a Brooklyn rabbi.
With the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office acknowledging that the case had been “significantly eroded,” Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Miriam Cyrulnik vacated the judgment and murder indictment against David Ranta, ordering him a free man.
Ranta, now 58, was greeted by emotional gasps from his family members as he entered Cyrulnik’s courtroom from the Wende Correctional Facility in Erie County, N.Y. Ranta had served 23 years of a 37½ years-to-life sentence for the murder of Rabbi Chaskel Werzberger.
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 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.
Though no physical evidence linked the unemployed drug addict to the crime, a jury found Ranta guilty in May 1991 based on witness testimony and circumstantial evidence.
“It is clear that the effects of this case have been devastating to the Ranta family and to the rabbi’s family,” Cyrulnik noted. “I don’t want to lose sight of that.”
The case against Ranta began to unravel after the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office launched a review by its newly formed Conviction Integrity Unit in 2011.
“In April of 2011 I created the Conviction Integrity Unit to examine cases of possible wrongful convictions,” Brooklyn DA Charles Hynes said in a statement.
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.
“To say that I am sorry for what you have endured would be grossly inadequate,” Cyrulnik said as she vacated Ranta’s conviction. “But I’ll say it anyway. I am sorry.” Ranta’s family could be heard weeping in the gallery.
The CIU also found gaps in police paperwork intended to document their investigation of the rabbi’s murder. 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.
“There were a number of things wrong with the case,” admitted John O’Mara, the assistant district attorney on the Ranta case. “I was not involved in the earlier decisions made in this case,” he continued. The investigators and prosecutors “were working from a different set of evidence,” O’Mara noted in a post -hearing press conference.
During the hearing, O’Mara made a point to note that the evidence in the case no longer establishes Ranta’s guilt because the “evidence has been degraded.”
“This was a travesty from the beginning,” said Pierre Sussman, Ranta’s current attorney.
The decision by the DA’s Office to support tossing out the conviction has shocked Werzberger’s relatives, said Isaac Abraham, a close family friend. They believe there's still credible evidence Ranta participated, he said.
“My client is here,” said Sussman. “He is a free man.” Sussman gave a description of the amount of time Ranta has spent behind bars. “To give you a sense of how long (Ranta) has been locked up,” Sussman said, “the Simpsons had premiered the year (Ranta) was put in jail. The Berlin Wall had come down only the year prior. (Ranta’s) parents passed away after he was in (jail).”
Ranta, surrounded by family and supporters, exited the courtroom with a mesh bag of his meager belongings amassed while behind bars. “I am overwhelmed,” Ranta told reporters. “I feel like I am underwater swimming.”
“I had nothing to do with this case,” Ranta said as he thanked his supporters and walked away in the arms of his family.