NEW YORK, March 20 (UPI) -- A New York prosecutor says a man convicted more than 20 years ago of killing an Orthodox Jewish rabbi was a victim of a bungled investigation.
Charles J. Hynes, who had just become Brooklyn district attorney when Chaskel Werzberger was killed during a failed jewel heist, will ask a court to release David Ranta, The New York Times reported. Ranta, who was sentenced to almost 40 years in prison, could be out of prison by Thursday.
Werzberger, a leader in the Satmar community in the Williamsburg neighborhood and an Auschwitz survivor, was killed in 1990 by a man who had just tried to steal 50 pounds of diamonds and other precious stones from a courier leaving a Brooklyn housing project for an early-morning flight to the Dominican Republic. While the courier, who foiled the robber by hitting him with his car, drove to the airport, the gunman shot Werzberger and grabbed his car.
Ranta, an unemployed printer with a drug problem, was identified by witnesses who have since said they were coached by the lead detective on the case, Louis Scarcella. Scarcella said Ranta confessed to the crime 26 hours after his arrest, a confession Ranta says he never made.
Hynes set up a unit two years ago to re-examine convictions that appear dubious. Ranta was identified as a wrongfully convicted man by the public defender who represented him at his 1991 trial and by a defense lawyer who noticed Scarcella had been involved in a number of questionable cases.
Ranta is now in a maximum-security prison in Buffalo.
"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 told the Times. "I came in here as a 30-something with kids, a mother who was alive. This case killed my whole life."
Ironically, the real killer may have been dead since 1990. Joseph Astin, a stickup man identified by an anonymous tipster, was killed in a police chase not long after Werzberger's death.
Scarcella argued that Ranta was working with Astin.
The retired detective denied any misconduct.
"I never framed anyone in my life," he told the Times Tuesday.