Acknowleding that its case had been "significantly eroded," the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office yesterday moved to drop the indictment against a man who spent some 23 years in prison after his conviction for murdering a prominent rabbi.
In 1991, David Ranta was convicted for the shooting death of Rabbi Chaskel Werzberger in a botched diamond heist, a crime that caught media attention for its cold-bloodedness and which incensed the local Satmar community.
Acting Supreme Court Justice Miriam Cyrulnik in Brooklyn (See Profile) signed an order yesterday to have Ranta, now 58, brought from the Wende Correctional Facility in Alden to her courtroom for proceedings after which, in all likelihood, he will be set free.
Ranta, who is serving a 37 1/2-year-to-life sentence, has maintained his innocence, but his appeals and post-conviction challenges over the years proved unsuccessful until now.
In December 2011, Kings County District Attorney Charles Hynes, at a meeting promoting his newly established Conviction Integrity Unit, asked if anyone could suggest cases for the unit to review.
Ranta’s attorney at the 1991 trial, Michael Baum, now with Brooklyn Defender Services, brought up Ranta’s case because he had received new information about a witness’ "discomfort" with his identification of Ranta as the perpetrator.
"It was hope beyond hope," Baum said yesterday, but "it started the ball rolling."
The request sparked a nearly year-long review by the Conviction Integrity Unit, which turned up information about fabricated statements and improper police work.
In papers filed yesterday by Assistant District Attorney John O’Mara, the head of the unit, the district attorney’s office joined in a defense motion to vacate the conviction. Further, O’Mara wrote that if the motion was granted, the district attorney would move to dismiss the indictment "as the People no longer have sufficient evidence to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt."
"Given the cumulative effect [of previously developed evidence and new revelations], the evidentiary foundation upon which the jury relied in delivering its verdict in this case has been significantly eroded. It is, therefore, the People’s position that, had the new evidence been available at the time of the trial, it would have created a probability that the verdict would have been more favorable to the defendant," O’Mara wrote in People v. Ranta, 8990/90.
Ranta’s conviction is the most serious case to be dismissed after the unit’s work and the third time it has opted to free a defendant following a review. Other reviews have led to the vacatur of a felony assault case and a now-sealed misdemeanor case. Apart from the Ranta case, the unit is investigating 14 other cases.
Robbery Gone Wrong
In the early morning of Feb. 8, 1990, Chaim Weinberger, a diamond courier, left his Brooklyn apartment to catch a flight out of John F. Kennedy International Airport.
He was approached by a gunman but escaped unharmed. The gunman then crossed the street to the car where Werzberger, was sitting. Werzberger was the chief assistant to the grand rabbi at Congregation Yetev Lev D’Satmar and a Holocaust survivor. The gunman shot the rabbi once in the head, pulled his body from the vehicle and sped off.
Two New York City detectives, Louis Scarcella and Stephen Chmil, were put on the case.
Shortly after the crime, police got an anonymous call that a man named Joseph Astin was the killer. Astin died in a car crash two months after the shooting. Baum said in an interview that Astin was fleeing officers pursuing him in connection with the shooting.
Scarcella brought Weinberger, the courier, to the morgue to see if he could identify Astin’s body, and when Weinberger could not, Scarcella stopped chasing leads on Astin.
Instead, the detectives were informed that two inmates awaiting trial on unrelated robbery charges, Dmitry Drikman and Alan Bloom, could have useful information on the crime.
Bloom, who has since died, fingered Ranta as the shooter, and Ranta was arrested in August 1990.
Weinberger, the courier, could not identify anyone at the first of two line-ups and three other witnesses pointed to stand-ins, not Ranta.
At a second line-up, three youths, including Menachem Lieberman, who said they saw the shooter waiting in a car before the crime occurred, identified Ranta.
After the line-ups, Ranta told police he had acted as the "look-out" for the robbery and saw Bloom and Drikman with the gun, but said he left before the shooting happened. Ranta would later tell the Conviction Integrity Unit that he never made any admission.
In any event, Bloom, who was granted immunity, acted as the government’s chief witness at trial, with his testimony backed by the accounts of the three youths who identified Ranta at the line-up.
Scarcella admitted he had not taken any notes during interviews of Bloom and Drikman. At one point, the presiding judge, Supreme Court Justice Francis Egitto, expressed concern about his mistrust of the detectives to the defense and prosecution, but never charged the jury on the issue.
Ranta was convicted of two counts of second-degree murder, first-degree robbery and first-degree attempted robbery.
At sentencing, Ranta said, "I’m stating today I’m not the man that shot the rabbi" and called the case "a total frame set up."
The Appellate Division, Second Department, affirmed the verdict in April 1994, noting the "overwhelming evidence" of Ranta’s guilt.
Astin’s wife, Theresa, later came forward saying Astin had confessed to the crime. But Egitto denied the Criminal Procedure Law 440 motion, saying the "new evidence" was not credible. A subsequent habeas challenge in federal court also failed.
The district attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit re-interviewed trial witnesses and talked to individuals associated with the case who did not testify.
Lieberman, the witness who expressed discomfort at his identification of Ranta, told investigators that just before entering the line-up room, a detective told him to "pick the guy with the big nose" and he acted accordingly.
His trial testimony, Lieberman added, was based on his line-up selection instead of recollections from the day of the crime.
"I was a young boy, and had an inherent trust in police. I believed that they must have known something that I didn’t," he said in an affidavit.
Drikman refused to give a "detailed account" to investigators but said his prior statements to police and others had been "fabrications" to get better deals on pending charges. Moreover, according to the prosecution’s motion, Drikman believed Bloom and police "framed" Ranta.
‘Made Everything Up’
Elizabeth Cruz, Drikman’s girlfriend at the time, did not testify at trial but spoke with law enforcement as the trial approached. Though implicating Ranta at the time, Cruz now said in an affidavit she "made everything up" because she thought she was helping Drikman "get a deal."
The prosecution also noted that Bloom’s credibility remained "a central concern" but there were "virtually no police reports or notes memorializing the various meetings between Bloom and detectives."
The court papers also said "this apparent failure to document also extends to earlier steps taken to investigate the possible involvement of Joseph Astin in this crime."
For example, Astin’s name was included in a police report but it was not clear what was the extent of the investigatory work.
Scarcella defended his work in an interview with The New York Times for an article that appeared yesterday, saying, "I never framed anyone in my life."
In an interview, Baum said Ranta "was a patsy, [the police] set him up just to solve a high-publicity crime." And while the prosecution could "perhaps be more skeptical of the evidence," Baum said he had "no real fault" with the prosecution.
"I think they presented a full and fair case. The jury just believed it," he said, adding that it was "just amazing to know [Ranta's] been vindicated… I thank and commend Mr. Hynes to have courage to do something like this."
Pierre Sussman of the Bronx, Ranta’s attorney on the current challenge, did not respond to a request for comment.
The turn of events has shocked the family members of the slain rabbi, but hasn’t shaken their belief that there’s still credible evidence Ranta helped plan the failed holdup, said Isaac Abraham, a community leader and close family friend.
"For this to happen 23 years later is mind-boggling," Abraham said to the Associated Press. "He can only claim he wasn’t the shooter but he can never claim he wasn’t involved."
The proceedings come as Hynes faces two challengers in a September Democratic primary. Both have questioned the district attorney’s credibility, pointing, in part, to wrongful convictions.
One of the challengers, Kenneth Thompson of Thompson Wigdor, said Hynes "should have thoroughly investigated this case from the outset shortly after Mr. Ranta was arrested in 1991, and especially after the trial judge questioned the veracity and tactics of the case detectives… The D.A. cannot wait for an election year to free innocent men and women."
Through a spokesman, Hynes said, "Apparently Mr. Thompson did not read the New York Times report completely to understand that Ranta would still be in prison had I not formed the Conviction Integrity Unit."
Abraham George, who is also challenging Hynes, said "no commendation" should be given to Hynes for the dismissal of a case that "had problems with the police officers and the evidence from the very beginning." The case was a "terrible tragedy" for Ranta, said George, but it also underscored in his mind "the real need to scrutinize many cases that have been brought under Mr. Hynes’ watch."
Much of the investigation was handled by Assistant District Attorney Taylor Koss and Detective Investigator Patrick Lanigan.
@|Andrew Keshner can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.