After spending some 23 years in prison for a murder he says he did not commit, David Ranta walked out of a Brooklyn courtroom a free man yesterday after prosecutors conceded the evidence against him had "degraded" to the point that they could not prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Ranta was convicted in 1991 for the high-profile shooting death of a prominent ultra-Orthodox religious leader, Rabbi Chaskel Werzberger. But a fresh look at the case by the Brooklyn district attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit disclosed that a man who had once identified Ranta as the killer now felt "discomfort" about his testimony and others admitted they had fabricated statements fingering Ranta (NYLJ, March 21).
During brief court proceedings yesterday, Assistant District Attorney John O’Mara, the integrity unit’s head, told Acting Supreme Court Justice Miriam Cyrulnik (See Profile) that District Attorney Charles Hynes was joining in the defense’s motion to vacate the conviction and throw out the indictment.
Cyrulnik noted the crime had been "devastating" to both the victim’s family as well as Ranta and his family.
"To say I’m sorry for what you endured would be an understatement, but I say it anyway," Cyrulnik told Ranta, 58, who was serving a 37 1/2-year-to-life sentence in People v. Ranta, 8990/90.
She then granted the motion, prompting cries of joy and applause from Ranta’s onlooking family.
Court officers took several moments to unshackle Ranta’s handcuffs and belt. Soon after, the judge told him, "Sir, you are free to go."
As the phalanx of reporters was ushered out of the courtroom, Ranta could be seen locked in a group hug of at least five people, some sobbing.
Outside the courtroom, Ranta told the media he was "overwhelmed" and reiterated, "I had nothing to do with this case."
His attorney, Pierre Sussman of the Bronx, said the case against his client was "a travesty of justice from the beginning."
O’Mara told reporters he thought the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office "did the right thing" in joining the request to dismiss the indictment. O’Mara also said, in retrospect, he did not have any regrets about how the prosecution was handled.
"You can’t go back now and say had we known this then," he said.
The trial judge, now-retired Justice Francis Egitto, did express concerns to prosecutors about the police work in the case but never charged the jury on such matters. Furthermore, Ranta’s post-conviction challenges included Brady violation claims but he could not persuade the courts to grant relief.
O’Mara said his unit is currently investigating another 14 cases, predominantly murder convictions.
The prosecution at the 1991 trial was handled by Barry Schreiber, now of Aaronson Rappaport Feinstein & Deutsch, and now-Acting Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Suzanne Mondo (See Profile). Neither returned calls for comment.
Ranta’s defense attorney at the original trial, Michael Baum, now with Brooklyn Defender Services, previously said he had "no real fault" with the prosecutors, who had put on a "full and fair case."
@|Andrew Keshner can be reached at email@example.com.