David Ranta has been languishing in a Brooklyn prison for almost 22 years. His conviction – second-degree murder. His crime – killing a rabbi during a diamond heist gone bad in 1990. His sentence – 37.5 years. He received his sentence in 1991.
Last Thursday, David Ranta became a free man. He received an apology from Judge Miriam Cyrulnik, who became emotional and shed some tears while telling Mr. Ranta that saying sorry for what he had endured during his years in prison is not enough.
The crime and the conviction
Ranta was convicted of shooting a rabbi from the Williamsburg community in Brooklyn, Chaskel Werzberger. A group of men were trying to hold up a diamond courier but he was able to escape. Somehow someone shot Werzberger who was sitting inside his car. The bullet passed through his car’s window and he was forcibly thrown out of the car, with the robber using his car to get away. He passed away after four days in the hospital.
Six months later Ranta was arrested. His arrest was due to two men who were facing robbery charges. During the first police lineup, only one witness, a young 13-year old boy identified Ranta after a long talk with a Yiddish interpreter. In the second lineup, there were three witnesses who identified Ranta, all of them young boys. The courier who escaped the heist did not identify Ranta during the lineup.
Even during the trial, the widow of another man came forward, telling the court that it was her husband who shot Werzberger. One inmate also came forward, saying that he fabricated his testimonies against Ranta in the hope that his conviction would be lessened. And the young boy, the sole witness, had also come forward saying that he was coached by a detective during the lineup, telling him to pick up the big-nosed man.
New investigations and conviction turnover
The new developments on Ranta’s case started two years ago and prompted a new spate of investigations. The dead man’s widow reiterated her earlier statement, that it was her husband and not Ranta who shot the rabbi. But what became crucial in the new investigation was the statement of the witness. Now a young man, Menachem Lieberman said that what happened when he was 13 years old weighed heavily on his mind all those years. He was too young to understand the whole investigation process then, but now had come to realize that an innocent man was put in prison because of him and changed his testimony.
Louis Scarcella, one of the detectives assigned to the case said that nothing like coaching the witness to pick Ranta from the lineup ever happened. He said they went by the evidences presented and the results of their investigation, adding that Ranta himself admitted that he was involved in the heist; he was near the scene of the crime; he knew his friends’ plan to stage a holdup; he admitted to helping plan the holdup and was their lookout. He also admitted that one of the men had a gun.
The results of the new investigations led Brooklyn Deputy District Attorney John O’Mara to announce that there were too many things wrong with Ranta’s case and that it is the belief of the prosecutors that Ranta could not be held “guilty beyond reasonable doubt.”
Upon release, Ranta was interviewed and he revealed that he would be filing a federal civil rights lawsuit against the New York Police Department as well as the New York City. But in the meantime he just wanted to leave the Brooklyn courtroom, connect with his family and have a chicken parmesan sandwich and fries, which could be a grand meal in itself, considering that he subsisted on prison food for over two decades.