Back in February 1990, Chaskel Werzberger, a leading rabbi in Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood and a Holocaust survivor, was shot in a robbery gone wrong. A little over a year later, David Ranta was convicted of Werzberger's murder and sentenced to 37.5 years to life in prison. But after the boy who identified in him a police lineup admitted he'd been coached, Ranta walked out a free man yesterday--and now plans to sue the NYPD.
"Mr. Ranta, to say that I'm sorry for what you have endured would be an understatement and grossly inadequate, but I say it to you anyway," Judge Miriam Cyrulnik said during an emotional hearing that left even the judge wiping her eyes.There had already been doubts about Ranta's guilt for some time. One of the inmates who originally identified Ranta later said he'd lied to police, and a woman came forward to say that her now-dead husband was the real perp. But the case really turned when the then 13-year-old boy who identified Ranta in a police lineup, Menachem Lieberman, dropped a bombshell--he'd been told to pick Ranta out of the lineup by an NYPD detective. Lieberman, now 33, told Anderson Cooper about his experience in an exclusive interview last night.
Asked what he wanted to do now, Ranta told reporters at the courthouse, "Get the hell out of here." And with that, he walked out with his lawyer, carrying a small mesh bag that held his belongings.
"Right now, I feel like I'm under water swimming," he said. "This is overwhelming."
Hours later, his lawyer told CNN that Ranta intends to file a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of New York and the New York Police Department.
"My client had 23 years taken from him. It is a lifetime, it's a generation," attorney Pierre Sussman said. "And if you look at those before and after pictures, before he went in, and now that he's out, it's a different person."
This case was one of the first prosecuted by Brooklyn's then-new DA, Charles Hynes. However, when Hynes found out about Lieberman's claim, he had John O'Mara, head of his office's conviction integrity unit, look into the case. O'Mara discovered that the lineup was one of "a number of things that were wrong with the case" that made it impossible for prosecutors to stand by the conviction.
The next question in this case--what to do about the detective who Lieberman says coached him, Louis Scarcella? He retired a few years ago, and not only maintains Ranta did it, but that he admitted his involvement in the killing. However, it looks to me that if anyone needs to have a lawyer on speed dial in this case, it's Scarcella. At the very least, Ranta may have excellent grounds to sue him into poverty.
Ranta says he wants to relax and reconnect with his family. Chances are he may need a good amount of counseling too. After all, he spent over one-third of his life in prison for a crime he didn't commit.