Rabbi's convicted killer could be cleared, set free, after two decades in prison

David Ranta
CBS New York
(CBS/AP) NEW YORK - A man who has been behind bars since 1990 for killing a Brooklyn rabbi could be set free today, after prosecutors told a judge they support tossing out his conviction.

David Ranta is to appear Thursday in N.Y. state court, where a judge will rule on a defense motion to vacate Ranta's second-degree murder conviction in the fatal shooting of Rabbi Chaskel Werzberger.

Ranta's possible dramatic reversal of fortune was first reported Wednesday by The New York Times.

Based on its own re-investigation of the case, the Brooklyn District Attorney's office filed papers on Wednesday supporting the motion. The prosecution also told the judge they want the murder indictment dismissed, since they "no longer have sufficient evidence to prove the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt."

"I'd lie there in the cell at night and I think: I'm the only one in the world who knows I'm innocent," Ranta told the Times from a Buffalo prison. "I came in here as a 30-something with kids, a mother who was alive. This case killed my whole life."

The Ranta case dates to Feb. 8, 1990, when Rabbi Chaskel Werzberger, a Holocaust survivor and a leader of Brooklyn's tight-knit Satmar Hasidic community, was shot in the head by a man fleeing a botched robbery.

Thousands attended the rabbi's funeral, and Mayor David Dinkins offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to an arrest. After Ranta's arrest, Hasidic Jews surrounded the car that carried him to jail and chanted, "Death penalty!"

Ranta, a drug-addicted, unemployed printer, was convicted in May 1991 and sentenced to 37 1/2 years in prison.

But the Times, citing investigators and legal documents, said that the detectives who arrested him broke numerous rules. They kept few written records, coached a witness and took Ranta's confession under what a judge described as highly dubious circumstances. They allowed two dangerous criminals, an investigator said, to leave jail, smoke crack cocaine and visit with prostitutes in exchange for incriminating Ranta.

No physical evidence connected Ranta to the murder.

"Now you people do what you got to do, because I feel this is all a total frame setup," Ranta said at his sentencing nearly 22 years ago. "When I come down on my appeal, I hope to God he brings out the truth going to be ashamed of themselves."

The lead detective, Louis Scarcella, defended his work.

"I never framed anyone in my life," he told the Times.