After 23 years in a maximum security prison for a crime he did not commit, David Ranta was set free Thursday.
Ranta, 58, was convicted of the 1991 shooting of Hasidic rabbi Chaskel Werzberger during the robbery of a jewelry courier in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He was released from a state prison near Buffalo, N.Y., and flown to New York City to appear in Brooklyn Supreme Court yesterday.
“To say that I’m sorry for what you have endured will be an understatement and grossly inadequate, but I say it to you anyway,” Supreme Court Justice Miriam Cyrulnik told Ranta. “Sir, you are a free man.”
After a yearlong investigation into his case by the Conviction Integrity Unit of the district attorney’s office, prosecutors agreed with Ranta’s lawyer, Pierre Sussman, and joined in asking the court to release him “in the interest of justice.”
That investigation turned up evidence that case detectives coached witnesses, failed to keep notes, and gave incentives to felons for providing information. There was no physical evidence linking Ranta to the murder.
Ranta’s pregnant daughter Prescilla witnessed his release – she was just an infant when her father was locked up. Ranta has three children ages 34, 28 and 25. He also recently married while he was still in prison, according to his relatives.
Ranta was all smiles as Sussman accompanied him out of court.
On Feb. 8, 1990, beloved Brooklyn Rabbi Werzberger, a leader of the Satmar Hasidic community, was sitting in his car when he shot in the head by the robber of a nearby diamond store. The gunman yanked his body out of the car and drove away.
Ranta, an unemployed former drug addict, was convicted in May 1991 and given a sentence of 37 years to life.
The DA took issue with tactics used by now-retired lead detective Louis Scarcella, who stands by his work in the investigation and denies that he coached any witnesses.
Menachem Lieberman, then 13 years old, testified that he saw Ranta sitting in a car near the murder scene. Lieberman, who today lives in Montreal, says Scarcella told him who to pick out in the lineup – something that has haunted Lieberman throughout his life.
Four of five witnesses in the first lineup did not pick out Ranta.
“Before I entered” the lineup room, Lieberman said in an affidavit, “a police detective told me to ‘pick the guy with the big nose.’”
Chaim Weinberger, the jewelry courier who looked the robber directly in the face, testified in defense of Ranta saying he was “100 percent not” the murderer.
Four years after Ranta was convicted, a woman testified that her deceased husband had confessed to the shooting. The woman, a drug addict, was found not credible by a judge after a post-conviction hearing in 1996.