NEW YORK (AP) — One man's liberty could mean another's murder will never be solved.
Relatives of David Ranta rejoiced in a Brooklyn courthouse Thursday as Ranta — convicted more than two decades ago in the cold-blooded slaying of a prominent rabbi — was released after prosecutors conceded their review of his murder case determined it was fatally flawed. But the celebration was tempered by a prosecutor's answer when asked who killed the victim.
"That's a good question," Assistant District Attorney John O'Mara, who heads the district attorney's Conviction Integrity Unit, said after a judge released Ranta. "It may have been this defendant, it may not have been this defendant."
With at least one other potential suspect dead, memories of witnesses faded and a glaring absence of police paperwork on the case, authorities say any opportunity for a clear-cut resolution has slipped through the hourglass. A judge, however, told Ranta on Thursday that he was at least owed an apology for a misguided prosecution.
"To say I'm sorry for what you've endured would be an understatement. ... But I say it anyway," said Judge Miriam Cyrulnik before freeing the smiling, white-haired Ranta. Ranta's pregnant daughter — a 2-year-old when he was jailed — sisters and other supporters burst into applause and swarmed him as he walked out of the courtroom. His parents had died while he was in prison.
"I'm overwhelmed," the 58-year-old Ranta told reporters, comparing the feeling to "swimming under water." The dramatic turnabout came after the DA's office filed paperwork earlier this week saying it supported a defense motion to vacate the murder conviction and dismiss the indictment. After a recent review, they said they "no longer have sufficient evidence to prove the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt."
The case dated to Feb. 8, 1990, when a gunman botched an attempt to rob a diamond courier in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. After the courier escaped unharmed, the man approached the car of Rabbi Chaskel Werzberger — a Holocaust survivor and a leader of the Satmar Hasidic community — shot him in the forehead, pulled him out of the vehicle and drove away in it.
Thousands attended the rabbi's funeral, and then-Mayor David Dinkins offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to an arrest. After the arrest of Ranta, Hasidic Jews surrounded the car that carried him to jail and chanted, "Death penalty!"
No physical evidence linked Ranta, an unemployed drug addict, to the crime and the diamond courier testified he didn't recognize Ranta as the bandit who tried to rob him. But a jury found him guilty anyway based on witness testimony and circumstantial evidence. He was sentenced to 37 1/2 years in prison.
The case began to unravel after newly formed Conviction Integrity Unit began its review in 2011. That same year, a man named Menachem Lieberman had approached Ranta's trial lawyer to tell him he "had uncertainty and discomfort" with his identification of Ranta, and later gave the unit a sworn statement recounting how a detective had told him to "pick the one with the big nose" — Ranta — out of a police lineup.
Other interviews done by the unit suggested a possible accomplice-turned-prosecution witness — now dead — had pinned the shooting on Ranta to save himself. A woman also repeated claims that her deceased husband, Joseph Astin, privately confessed he was involved in the Werzberger killing.
New York Police Department detective Louis Scarcella claimed at a 1995 appeals hearing that he "engaged in numerous investigative steps" to check out Astin, but couldn't produce any paperwork to show that, according to the prosecutor's recent court papers. The investigator testified that after Astin died in a car wreck in 1990, he left a business card at the home of Asti's widow but "had never spoken to her," the papers said.
After learning earlier this week of Ranta's pending release, the retired Scarcella defended his work. "I never framed anyone in my life," he told the New York Post. "You have to be a low devil to frame someone. I sleep well at night."
Asked about Scarcella on Thursday, Ranta trial attorney Michael Baum said: "I think he saw a chance to solve a high-profile case at any cost. ... He's a cowboy." Ranta himself was unequivocal on the question of his innocence.
"Like I said from the beginning," he said as he stood outside the courtroom as a free man. "I had nothing to do with this case." Asked what he was going to do next, he responded, "Get the hell out of here."