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Freed NY convict’s first goal: ‘Get the hell out of here’

Posted at 5:12 PM, Mar 21, 2013
and last updated 2013-03-21 21:14:42-04

NEW YORK (CNN) — David Ranta walked out of a Brooklyn courthouse a free man on Thursday after serving more than 20 years for the killing of a rabbi during a botched diamond heist.

Brooklyn prosecutors recommended that David Ranta’s conviction be tossed out after a onetime witness said he had been coached into identifying the suspect in a police lineup. An investigation found other problems with the case, leading them to conclude the 1991 verdict could no longer be supported by the evidence.

“Mr. Ranta, to say that I’m sorry for what you have endured would be an understatement and grossly inadequate, but I say it to you anyway,” Judge Miriam Cyrulnik said during an emotional hearing that left even the judge wiping her eyes.

Asked what he wanted to do now, Ranta told reporters at the courthouse, “Get the hell out of here.” And with that, he walked out with his lawyer, carrying a small mesh bag that held his belongings.

“Right now, I feel like I’m under water swimming,” he said. “This is overwhelming.”

Ranta, now 58, had been convicted of shooting Chaskel Werzberger during the attempted robbery of a diamond courier in Brooklyn in 1991. He was sentenced to 37 1/2 years to life in prison on second-degree murder and other charges.

But after a renewed investigation that began in 2011, prosecutors determined the evidence underpinning his conviction “has been degraded to such an extent” that it would no longer support the verdict, said John O’Mara, the deputy district attorney in charge of Brooklyn’s conviction integrity unit.

Since Ranta’s trial, another man’s widow has identified her husband as the killer; a onetime jail inmate has said he made up statements about Ranta to boost his own fortunes; and the man who, as a boy, picked him out of a lineup has come forward to say he was coached by a detective, prosecutors told the judge.

Louis Scarcella, one of the detectives who investigated the case, told CNN that Ranta admitted his involvement in the heist attempt and that he stands by the arrest. As for claims that police coached a witness, he said, “No way that happened.”

But O’Mara said the investigation found “a number of things that were wrong with the case.”

“It was cumulative,” he said. New evidence led prosecutors to believe “that we could no longer be confident” that Ranta was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Werzberger died four days after being shot, a victim of the attempted holdup of a diamond courier. The courier escaped, but the would-be robber shot Werzberger through the window of his parked car, hauled him out of the vehicle and drove off, according to the Brooklyn district attorney’s office.

Ranta was arrested six months later, after two men facing trial on their own robbery charges gave his name to police, prosecutors recounted in asking that his second-degree murder conviction be tossed out and the charges dismissed.

One of them, Alan Bloom, identified Ranta as the gunman. Another acquaintance — a woman who had brought charges against Ranta in a “prior altercation” — told police that Ranta had confided in her about the planned jewelry robbery and the murder of the rabbi, prosecutors wrote.

In an initial lineup, only one witness recognized Ranta, and that was after a lengthy conversation with a Yiddish interpreter, they noted. In the second lineup, three youths identified him and repeated that identification in court. One witness who didn’t identify him was the courier, the intended target of the holdup.

When questioned by detectives, Ranta initially denied any involvement in the killing.

Then he acknowledged knowing Bloom, according to prosecutors. He admitted he had been near the scene and knowing his friends had planned a holdup. Then he admitted he had been involved in planning the diamond heist, acted as the lookout and had seen Bloom and the second jailed witness, Dmitry Drikman, with a gun.

“Two witnesses testified implicating him,” Michael Baum, the lawyer who represented Ranta at his trialold CNN. “The police had an alleged confession from him, but there was no physical evidence. The jewelry courier, he testified for the defense, saying that Ranta wasn’t the guy. A woman came forward saying Ranta was innocent, that her husband was the one who did it,” Baum said.

In 1995, Theresa Astin said her husband, Joseph — who died in a 1990 car accident — had been the killer. Baum sought a new trial for his client based on Astin’s testimony, but a judge refused to grant one.

Astin had been named as a possible suspect before, and Scarcella had brought the courier to the morgue in hopes that he would identify Astin’s body as the gunman. He didn’t.

Then in 2011, Baum said, one of the kids who picked Ranta out of a lineup got in touch with him.

“I got a call saying, ‘I’ve lived with this for 20 years. The detective told me who to pick out,’ ” Baum said.

The call was from Menachem Lieberman, who later told investigators he identified Ranta after being told by a detective to “Pick the guy with the big nose.”

“It was on his conscience for all these years,” Baum said. “He was 13 years old at the time. He was just a kid. He was just doing what they told him to do.”

Baum went to O’Mara’s office, and that unit began to dig into Ranta’s case. Drikman admitted he had fabricated earlier statements he made about Ranta, hoping that his cooperation would help his own criminal case. Drikman’s girlfriend at the time confessed that her account was manufactured to assist him. Astin reiterated her previous testimony.

Scarcella said the case against Ranta was “very simple,” and he sharply disputes Lieberman’s account of being coached.

“They’re saying that I framed it,” Scarcella said. “I want to go on record saying this: I never framed anyone in my life, and you would have to be a low, low devil to do something like that. I slept very good for the last 22 years.”

But Sussman called the case “a travesty of justice from the beginning.”

“My client’s parents passed in the first year that he was incarcerated,” he said. “His daughter, who is here today, who is six months pregnant, was 2 years old. And he is blessed, and we are so happy he is here with all of us now today.”

CNN’s Aaron Cooper, Raelyn Johnson and Laura Ly contributed to this report.