On today’s front page, the NYTimes reports that a Brooklyn prosecutor plans to seek freedom of man convicted in 1990 killing of Rabbi.
In the wintry darkness 23 years ago on a back street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a jewelry thief fleeing a botched robbery panicked and shot a Hasidic rabbi in the head.
Four days later, the rabbi, Chaskel Werzberger, an Auschwitz survivor, died of his wounds. Even in the New York City of 1990, as homicides crested at 2,245, the murder stirred grief and outrage. The “Slain Rabbi” was front-page tabloid news. Mayor David N. Dinkins traveled to Williamsburg’s Satmar enclave to sit in mourning and to offer a $10,000 reward.
The new Brooklyn district attorney, Charles J. Hynes, stood shoulder to shoulder with fur-hat-wearing Satmars, watching as they rocked back and forth and wailed as the pinewood coffin was carried out. He vowed to bring the killer to justice.
Forty detectives worked the case, soon led by the swaggering, cigar-chewing Detective Louis Scarcella. Working closely with an influential Satmar rabbi, Detective Scarcella arrested a drug-addicted, unemployed printer named David Ranta. Hasidic Jews surrounded the car that carried the accused man to jail, slapping the roof and chanting, “Death penalty!”
Mr. Ranta was convicted in May 1991 and sentenced to 37.5 years in maximum-security prison, where he remains to this day.
He is almost certainly not guilty.
This week Mr. Hynes, after a long investigation by a unit that he created to look into questionable convictions, plans to ask a state judge to release the prisoner. Mr. Ranta’s lawyer, Pierre Sussman, who conducted his own inquiry, said his client has been instructed to pack up his cell.
Mr. Ranta could walk free as early as Thursday. In the decades since a jury convicted him of murder, nearly every piece of evidence in this case has fallen away. A key witness told The New York Times that a detective instructed him to select Mr. Ranta in the lineup. A convicted rapist told the district attorney that he falsely implicated Mr. Ranta in hopes of cutting a deal for himself. A woman has signed an affidavit saying she too lied about Mr. Ranta’s involvement.
Detective Scarcella and his partner, Stephen Chmil, according to investigators and legal documents, broke rule after rule. They kept few written records, coached a witness and took Mr. 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 Mr. Ranta.
At trial, prosecutors acknowledged the detectives had misbehaved but depicted them as likable scamps. Reached in retirement on Tuesday, Mr. Scarcella defended his work. “I never framed anyone in my life,” he said.
No physical evidence ever connected Mr. Ranta to the murder.
He now sits in a cell at a maximum-security prison outside Buffalo. He is a touch shy; his gray hair is fast thinning. His voice still carries the slantwise intonations of working-class south Brooklyn. Asked how he survived, he said he was not sure he had.
“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,” he said. “I came in here as a 30-something with kids, a mother who was alive. This case killed my whole life.”
A Guilty Verdict
It began with a fumbled robbery on Feb. 8, 1990.
Chaim Weinberger, a courier for Pan American Diamond Corporation, left his apartment in a public housing tower in Williamsburg, pulling a 50-pound suitcase filled with diamonds and precious gems. He had to catch a 7 a.m. flight to the Dominican Republic, where his cargo would be cut into jewelry.
His trips were predictable and easily timed; he worried about robbery. In the lobby, he saw a tall, blond, strikingly handsome guy, “like a lifeguard on the beach,” Mr. Weinberger said. They stared at each other.
The blond man walked downstairs.
As Mr. Weinberger hurried beneath towering sycamores to the street, he saw the man trailing him. He tossed the suitcase into the trunk and started his engine. The blond man strode quickly now, covering his face with a handkerchief and pulling out a silver gun.
Mr. Weinberger put the car into reverse and knocked the gunman into a trash heap. He sped away, his door flapping open. He did not stop until he got to the airport, he recalled in an interview.
Tragedy unfolded behind him. The robber, unnerved, spotted Rabbi Werzberger warming up his blue 1985 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme before driving to a synagogue. He ran over, fired a shot, pulled out the mortally wounded rabbi and drove off in his car.
This murder tore at the heart of the then-25,000-strong Satmar community. Rabbi Werzberger was their shamas and adviser to the grand rebbe. The Satmar, the intensely devout, politically powerful ultra-Orthodox sect, demanded that the police find his killer. Rabbi Leib Glantz became their point man.
Rabbi Glantz rounded up witnesses, brought them to the precinct and translated from Yiddish as detectives conducted interviews.
Detectives worked furiously, calling in paroled felons and miscreants of many varieties for questioning. An anonymous caller suggested that the police talk to Joseph Astin, an experienced holdup man who was tall and blond, with rugged good looks. But on April 2, Mr. Astin crashed his car in a police chase and died.
In late April, Detective Scarcella went to jail and visited Dmitry Drikman, a mustachioed bull of a man with a perpetual glower. Mr. Drikman was being held for several robberies, and had in the past been convicted of a horrific rape.
Mr. Drikman, in hopes of obtaining a shorter sentence, proved talkative. He gave Detective Scarcella the name of his friend, Alan Bloom.
Mr. Bloom, a crack-cocaine addict, had been convicted of dozens of robberies and faced a potential century in prison. He decided to start talking.
The detectives placed Mr. Bloom and Mr. Drikman in the same section of the jail, so they could continue their conversation. Soon they had their story: Mr. Bloom had had a hand in the robbery, but an acquaintance, David Ranta, a small-time thief and drug user, was the gunman. And Mr. Drikman’s girlfriend told detectives she had seen Mr. Ranta and Mr. Bloom planning to cover up the crime.
District Attorney Hynes shook hands with Mr. Bloom shortly before prosecutors gave him immunity from prosecution in the murder case and greatly reduced his sentence for other crimes.
On Aug. 13, Detectives Scarcella and Chmil found Mr. Ranta on 73rd Street in Bensonhurst. They handcuffed him and drove to the 90th Precinct in Williamsburg.
Detective Scarcella testified at Mr. Ranta’s trial that, 26 hours later, he sat on a bench in a crowded office and listened as Mr. Ranta, with little or no sleep, gave a long, rambling confession.
The detective said he did not have to ask Mr. Ranta a single question. “He flowed, and I took it all down, verbatim,” the detective testified.
Asked why he did not question the suspect, Detective Scarcella was nonchalant.
“That’s not my style,” he replied.
The case was laden with inconsistencies. Mr. Weinberger had stared the gunman in the face and testified during the trial that Mr. Ranta was “100 percent not” that person. In fact, four of the five witnesses in the first lineup did not identify Mr. Ranta.
In the end, however, the jury pronounced Mr. Ranta guilty.
Before his sentencing, Mr. Ranta addressed the court. He spoke of corrupt police officers and those who testified against him.
“Now you people do what you got to do because I feel this is all a total frame setup,” he told the court. “When I come down on my appeal, I hope to God he brings out the truth because a lot of people are going to be ashamed of themselves.”
Behind the Scenes
During the trial, Detective Scarcella proved to be an entertaining witness. A son of Bensonhurst, a professed old-school detective, he talked about how to make a suspect talk and where to buy the best pizza (New Haven, he advised). But his description of his investigation angered the judge, Francis X. Egitto.
Asked why he took prisoners out of jail to eat at restaurants and visit felonious friends, Detective Scarcella replied, “I do what I want to do with my prisoners.”
“They’re not your prisoners,” Justice Egitto responded.
The detective testified that while interviewing Mr. Bloom and Mr. Drikman, he never wrote a single note, as required by police procedure. Nor did he show witnesses photographs of Mr. Drikman or Mr. Bloom, although they were murder suspects.
The judge in particular questioned how Detective Scarcella obtained Mr. Ranta’s confession, asking why a veteran detective did not take Mr. Ranta to an interview room, where he could have tape-recorded it. Detective Scarcella said he transcribed the 658-word confession by hand.
Mr. Ranta has insisted he confessed to nothing. He passed a polygraph test in which he was asked if he shot the rabbi.
Midway through the trial, the judge spoke to the lawyers of his mistrust of these detectives. They are playing games, he said. They have “taken it upon themselves to be judge, jury and partial executioner.”
Yet, when he instructed the jury on what to consider during deliberation, he mentioned none of his concerns.
Four years later, new doubts arose. In 1996, Theresa Astin testified that her husband, Mr. Astin, who had died in that car wreck in April 1990, had murdered the rabbi. She knew details of the killing that only someone close to it would. Mr. Ranta’s defense lawyer, Michael Baum, filed a court motion.
Ms. Astin turned out to be a complicated witness.
In the early 1980s, she was the girlfriend of Joe Sullivan, a freelance hit-man known as Mad Dog who killed at least 11 men.
Afterward, she married and settled down in the Gravesend neighborhood with Mr. Astin, a mechanic with a cocaine problem and a tendency to pull armed robberies.
Snarled though her personal life was, Ms. Astin told a compelling tale: Her husband had planned a robbery, and he came home shaking and nearly in tears on the day the rabbi was shot. Later she found him in the bathroom, dismantling a pistol.
“He said, ‘I hurt someone, something happened,’ ” Ms. Astin testified. “He was crying, he was scared.”
“ ‘You’re in trouble, Joe. It’s like you killed a priest in our religion,’ ” she warned him. Justice Egitto handled the court hearing. Again he wrote of troubling facts — and refused to toss the verdict.
Mr. Ranta feared he had exhausted every option for appeal. “I figured I was going to die in prison,” he recalled.
Case Falls Apart
Every Christmas, Mr. Baum received a Christmas card from Mr. Ranta. “I never had any doubt in my mind he was innocent,” Mr. Baum said in an interview. “I sleep with it every night.”
Sixteen months ago, the district attorney, promoting his newly established Conviction Integrity Unit, gave a talk to the public defenders. Does anyone, he asked, know of cases that should be re-examined?
Mr. Baum raised his hand.
In the Bronx, Pierre Sussman, a defense lawyer hunting for evidence of police misconduct, noticed that Detective Scarcella’s name showed up in several troubled cases. He did a computer search, discovered Mr. Ranta’s name and visited him in prison, where he agreed to take on his case.
Soon the last vestiges of evidence fell away. A man who was 13 at the time of the murder, Menachem Lieberman, testified back then that he had seen Mr. Ranta sitting in a car near the murder site.
Now, reached at his home in Montreal, Mr. Lieberman said the case had nagged at him for years. “Before I entered the” lineup room, he told investigators, “a police detective told me to ‘pick the guy with big nose.’ ”
He picked Mr. Ranta, he said, “because he had the biggest nose.”
And Mr. Drikman’s girlfriend, Elizabeth Cruz, also abandoned her story and apologized. “I made up everything,” she said in an affidavit, in hopes of gaining a deal for her boyfriend.
Mr. Drikman also stated that he fabricated his account, and that detectives and Mr. Bloom “framed” Mr. Ranta.
The case against Mr. Ranta had come undone.
“What’s important to me is that this fellow should not be in prison one day longer,” Mr. Hynes said in a telephone interview on Tuesday.
All that remains is for Mr. Ranta, now 58, to feel the shackles taken off his hands and legs and stand before a State Supreme Court judge.
“I’ve lived years in a cage, stripped down, humiliated,” he said. “I’ll be able to touch people again, to make decisions.”
He took a great gulp of air. “To be honest, what’s ahead scares me.”