Late last month, after 23 years behind bars for crimes he almost certainly did not commit, a gray-haired David Ranta, 58, carrying a purple fishnet laundry bag containing all his worldly possessions, walked out of State Supreme Court in Brooklyn a free man.
(Ranta suffered a serious heart attack just a day after his release but is said to be recovering and in “good spirits).
Ranta, who was convicted in 1991 of attempting to rob a chasidic jewelry courier and then murdering a prominent chasidic rabbi, was released after a yearlong investigation by the Brooklyn District Attorney’s recently established Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU).
The investigation, prompted by Ranta’s trial attorney, Michael Baum, found that “the evidentiary foundation upon which the jury relied in delivering its verdict in this case has been significantly eroded.” In its reporting on the unraveling of the case, The New York Times highlighted the intense community pressure to solve the case and the conduct of one detective in particular as playing major roles in Ranta’s wrongful conviction.
Upon Ranta’s release, the head of the CIU, John O’Mara, told The Daily News “We did the right thing,” in releasing Ranta — something that can hardly be disputed. However, the case against Ranta was clearly flawed from the start, observers say. And a review of the various appeals and motions Ranta filed while he was incarcerated — all of which were vigorously opposed by DA Charles Hynes and denied by the courts — indicate that these flaws were not uncovered by the CIU, but were well known to the prosecution for 20 years. (One piece of new evidence was the admission by a chasidic man that he had been coached to lie during the lineup).
The problems with the initial case include the fact that there was no physical evidence connecting Ranta to the crime, and that a key eyewitness insisted Ranta was not the culprit. The main witness linking Ranta to both crimes was a crack-addicted jailhouse informant who received immunity for his crimes and a sweetheart deal on his own numerous pending charges in exchange for his testimony. In addition, the lead detective on the case removed potential suspects from prison and entertained them. Ranta’s confession (which he denied making) was not tape recorded, but transcribed by the detective.
And this includes only what was known to the defense at the time of the trial.
All of this has led some observers to suggest that Hynes’ release of Ranta, without acknowledging any culpability on the part of his own office, was timed to burnish his reputation in what is shaping up to be a potentially tough re-election fight later this year.
“As in almost all wrongful conviction litigations, so-called new evidence of innocence is known to prosecutors and judges years, sometimes decades before a case is finally resolved,” Lonnie Soury, an expert in wrongful convictions who helped to free Martin Tankleff and the West Memphis Three and is the founder of FalseConfessions.org, told The Jewish Week.
“The Ranta case was no different,” Soury continued. “The ‘new’ evidence was known to Hynes’ office for years, and this man should have been released a long time ago. But one cannot overlook the significance of the timing of this decision as Hynes has taken tremendous heat for the wrongful conviction of Jabbar Collins, a [$150 million] civil suit for which is now underway in the federal court. This is an election year.”
Jabbar Collins was convicted of the 1994 murder of a chasidic landlord and, after spending 15 years in jail, won his release in 2010. It came after a federal judge vacated his conviction in the face of significant evidence that Collins and his attorney had uncovered of prosecutorial misconduct. (Last year Hynes was forced to drop charges against Darrell Dula and Ronald Bozeman, both of whom had been jailed awaiting trial, after evidence of misconduct by prosecutors emerged. In February, the murder conviction of William Lopez, who had spent 23 years in jail, was thrown out by a federal judge.)
According to the prosecution’s narrative, the murder of Rabbi Chaskel Werzberger stemmed from the botched robbery of a jewelry courier, Chaim Weinberger, in the early morning hours of Feb. 8, 1990. Weinberger, held up at gunpoint in his car, managed to get away. Then, according to the prosecution, unable to locate his getaway car, the gunman approached the idling car of Rabbi Chaskel Werzberger, a chief assistant to the Satmar sect’s then-Grand Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum. The would-be robber fired at Werzberger through the car window, opened the door, shoved the rabbi’s body onto the street and drove off in his car. Rabbi Werzberger died from his injuries four days later.
The killing sent shockwaves through the tight-knit Satmar community, where Rabbi Werzberger, a Holocaust survivor, was revered.
Under mounting pressure from the chasidic community to solve the crime, the police worked feverishly, with Satmar power broker Rabbi Leib Glanz acting as a liaison between the police and the Satmar community.
Six months after Werzberger’s killing, Ranta was arrested on charges of murder and weapons possession; the arrest was announced by the police commissioner at the Williamsburg precinct.
Ranta was placed in a lineup after his arrest and, notably, a number of supposed eyewitnesses, all chasidic teenage boys procured by Glanz, did not pick him; one who did had initially failed to do so until after he was removed from the lineup and taken into a room with a detective, an assistant district attorney and a Yiddish interpreter not employed by the police department.
Further, Weinberger, the one person who had gotten a close look at the would-be thief (but not the rabbi’s killer), also failed to identify Ranta. Indeed, Weinberger repeatedly insisted to the detectives and prosecutors that Ranta was not the man who tried to hold him up. Ranta’s attorney moved to suppress the eyewitness witness identifications, but the judge ruled against it, with the exception of the identification involving the Yiddish translator.
In a phone interview with The Jewish Week last week, Weinberger recounted how he met with one of the prosecutors, Barry Schreiber, for several hours on two separate occasions before the trial and “argued, probably yelled and screamed,” trying to convince him that Ranta was not the man he had seen that February morning.
An e-mail to Schreiber did not receive a reply. Several e-mails to a Hynes spokesman did not receive replies.
Weinberger also told The Jewish Week that Hynes, newly elected to office at the time, seemed to take a personal interest in the case, recalling that Hynes himself spoke to him before he testified in the grand jury and was also present in the courtroom when Weinberger testified — for the defense — at trial.
“It was against my own interests to say that Ranta wasn’t the guy who tried to rob me,” Weinberger told The Jewish Week, noting that the real gunman could still have been on the loose and thus a threat to him. “But it wasn’t Ranta, and my conscience wouldn’t let me say it was.”
At the trial, the conduct of the lead detective, Louis Scarcella, led the judge, Francis X. Eggito to question Scarcella about how Ranta’s confession was obtained and why it had been transcribed by him rather than tape recorded, according to mandated DA policy. Eggito also voiced serious concerns about Scarcella’s procedures more generally, and in the middle of the trial, expressed his mistrust of the detectives to the prosecutors, but failed to take any further action.
In May of 1991, Ranta was convicted on two counts of second-degree murder as well one count each of robbery and attempted robbery.
In a statement to the court before his sentencing, Ranta proclaimed his innocence and railed against the “two very corrupt cops” who used “a hooker,” “a junkie” and “somebody who had raped” to convict him. Ranta noted that one of these witnesses, Alan Bloom, got “his immunity from 109 years to a 3 ½ to 10.” Ranta also excoriated the prosecutors for taking “my credible witness, the diamond courier, who looked at me face-to-face – supposedly I’m the shooter, right – he said it wasn’t me. You took him, Mr. Schreiber and Ms. Mondo [the other prosecutor], and you abused him. You made that man look like a jerk…”
The judge sentenced Ranta to 37 ½ years to life.
Ranta appealed his conviction in 1994, claiming, among other things, that prosecutors had violated a judicial order to turn over audiotapes of the witness identifications by a certain date, instead giving the defense transcripts; one of the transcripts omitted key information potentially favorable to the defense (they turned over the actual tape just before summations).
Despite acknowledging that the district attorney’s office had delayed in meeting its obligations to turn over witness statements and potentially exculpatory information (otherwise known as Brady material) to the defense — something the court said it did “not condone” — the court denied Ranta’s appeal and ruled those claims would not be reviewed by the appellate court.
Shortly after Ranta’s conviction, his attorney, Michael Baum, received anonymous calls from two women, one of whom named Joseph Astin as the man responsible for the crimes. Ultimately, one of the callers identified herself to Baum as Astin’s wife, Theresa (the other caller was Astin’s mother), and told him that her late husband had confessed to being involved in the crime, committing the botched robbery and accidentally shooting the rabbi in an attempt to take his car to flee the scene. (He died in a car chase with police two months after the crimes).
She gave other details that made Baum feel she was credible, and also revealed that her husband’s three accomplices were “your people” (Baum is Jewish), Jewish men “who wore yarmulkes,” but gave no names. Baum tried to persuade Theresa to come forward, but for several years she was afraid, telling him that “snitches wear stitches.”
As it turned out, Astin was briefly investigated early on in the case, based on an anonymous tip to police. Theresa told Baum that Scarcella and his partner had visited her the evening after her husband’s death and asked her if she knew whether he had shot a rabbi in Brooklyn. They notified her of a $20,000 reward being offered to find the rabbi’s killer, but she failed to respond. They also spoke to Astin’s parole officer in a failed attempt to get him to come in and give his fingerprints. In addition, Scarcella had shown Weinberger a photo of Astin, and later took him to see his dead body, whose face had been disfigured in the car crash, in the morgue; Weinberger was unable to make a positive identification.
Despite indications that police felt Astin might be involved in the crimes, Baum says that no police reports concerning the substance of their investigation of Astin were turned over to him.
In 1994, Theresa Astin signed an affidavit in support of her statements to Baum, and in November of 1995 Ranta filed a motion to vacate his conviction. He alleged that “the judgment was procured by fraud on the part of the prosecutor and police personnel acting on behalf of the prosecutor, that material evidence adduced by the prosecution at trial was false and known by the District Attorney or his agents to be false and newly discovered evidence from Theresa Astin and Weinberger.”
The trial judge granted a hearing 1996, at which Theresa Astin testified to what she had told Baum. But the Appellate Division ultimately unanimously affirmed the conviction, citing questions about Theresa’s credibility and a failure by Ranta to show that her information would have led to a more favorable verdict. In 1997, Ranta sought a federal writ of habeas corpus; the DA moved to dismiss Ranta’s petition but lost.
In 2000, federal judge Edward Korman denied Ranta’s petition on technical grounds. While acknowledging the numerous Brady issues, Korman upheld the state court’s ruling that, when finally given Brady material (when it was arguably too late to use it) the defense did not make an adequate objection. Ranta appealed this decision in 2005 and lost.
According to observers, the substance of these appeals begs the question of why Hynes’ office decided only now to support the vacating of Ranta’s conviction, given that the problems his office used to justify Ranta’s release have been evident for 20 years.
Indeed, the very same day Ranta was released, a man named William Lopez, who recently had his conviction overturned after spending 23 years behind bars, also left jail a free man. However, unlike Ranta, Lopez’s case was overturned on appeal by a federal judge who proclaimed it “rotten from day one.” Hynes vowed to retry Lopez, but the judge took the unusual step of blocking him from doing so, though Hynes has said he will appeal the judge’s decision.
Some speculate that the Ranta case was an easy pick for Hynes’ Conviction Integrity Unit, as many of the problems with the case could be blamed on the detective, and a likely suspect in the crimes is long dead, obviating the need for a reinvestigation. (John O’Mara, the head of the CIU, recently told the Daily News that while Ranta is “legally innocent,” he doesn’t “have the unadulterated feeling that this is an actual innocent person that got let out.”)
According to former prosecutor and defense attorney Mark Bederow, who represented Ronald Bozeman (who had charges against him thrown out last year), “freeing Ranta, while having a dead man and a now-disgraced detective to blame, allows the DA to claim that ‘justice was served’ while at the same time assuring an end to the inquiry and the years-long criticism which would likely hover over any investigation.
“Given the bruising primary, Ranta’s release also seemingly provides political cover from the incoming flak about the disturbing amount of wrongful convictions and prosecutions, and serves as the perfect opening trailer for the DA’s CBS show designed to glorify the DA,” Bederow continued. He was referring to the recent announcement by CBS of an upcoming six-part reality show focusing on Hynes’ office.
“Left unanswered,” said Bederow, “is why Astin’s wife’s claim that her late husband conspired with ‘Jews who wore yarmulkes’ was apparently ignored. Indisputably, the political pressure to close this case in the 1990s was great and investigating members of the rabbi’s community would not help relations between the community and DA.”
Bennett Gershman, a professor at Pace Law School and a leading expert in prosecutorial misconduct, asked: “Should Hynes take credit for exposing this terrible miscarriage of justice? His office brought the case initially, allowed dishonest cops and witnesses to testify, and steadfastly and aggressively, even desperately, sought to preserve the conviction for nearly 20 years and did absolutely nothing for 20 years to investigate the case to help Ranta gain his freedom.
“It was entirely the work of Ranta’s lawyers,” Gershman continued, “as is usually the case.”