A man who spent more than two decades behind bars for the cold-blooded slaying of a rabbi in New York City was released on Thursday into the arms of his weeping relatives after a reinvestigation by prosecutors cast serious doubt on evidence used to convict him.
The case dated to February 8, 1990, when a gunman botched an attempt to rob a diamond courier in Brooklyn. 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 police picked up unemployed drug addict David Ranta, Hasidic Jews surrounded the car that carried him to jail and chanted, "Death penalty!"
No physical evidence linked Ranta 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 37 and a half years in prison.
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's pregnant daughter - a 2-year-old when he was jailed - sisters and other supporters swarmed him as he walked out of the courtroom. His parents died while he was in prison.
"I'm overwhelmed," the 58-year-old Ranta told reporters. "I feel like I'm under water, swimming."
Ranta had claimed he had been rotting in 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 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 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 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."