A man who spent more than two decades behind bars for the cold-blooded slaying of Reb Chatzkel Werzberger, Hy”d, the beloved shamash of Khal Yeitev Lev of Satmar in Williamsburg, was released Thursday after a reinvestigation by prosecutors cast serious doubt on evidence used to convict him.
“Sir, you are free to go,” a judge told a smiling, white-haired David Ranta moments after prosecutors announced they supported tossing out the 1991 conviction.
“I’m overwhelmed,” the 58-year-old Ranta told reporters. “I feel like I’m under water, swimming.”
But family members of the victim said that while they always considered Ranta to be innocent of the murder charge, he was definitely an accomplice to the Feb. 8, 1990, murder of Rabbi Werzberger, known in Satmar as Reb Chatzkel Shamash.
“I sat through the testimony, I sat through the witnesses, and I sat through the evidence,” Isaac Abraham, a cousin of Rabbi Werzberger, said. “I walked out of that courtroom fully convinced that he was a participant.”
The dramatic turnabout came after the Brooklyn district attorney’s office filed paperwork on Wednesday saying it supported a defense motion to vacate the murder conviction and dismiss the indictment. While they were not convinced of Ranta’s innocence, they said they “no longer have sufficient evidence to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”
“That’s a good question,” prosecutor John O’Mara, who heads the DA’s Conviction Integrity Unit, said when asked by reporters who pulled the trigger in the robbery gone awry. “It may have been this defendant, it may not have been this defendant.”
Mr. Abraham said that he approached Ranta as he was leaving the courtroom and demanded to know whether he knew anything about the identity of the real murderer.
Ranta, who told Mr. Abraham that he recognized him from the trial, denied any knowledge.
“I wasn’t there, I didn’t shoot, I was not an accomplice, I knew nothing about it,” Ranta said, according to Mr. Abraham, before his attorney took him away.
Before releasing Ranta, Judge Miriam Cyrulnik offered an apology: “To say I’m sorry for what you’ve endured would be an understatement. … But I say it anyway.”
The incident occurred on an early wintry morning 23 years ago when a gunman botched an attempt to rob a diamond courier in Williamsburg. After the courier escaped unharmed, the man approached the car of Rabbi Werzberger, a Holocaust survivor, shot him in the forehead, pulled him out of the vehicle and drove away in it.
No physical evidence linked the unemployed drug addict to the crime, and the diamond courier never identified him as the bandit. But a jury found him guilty anyway based on witness testimony and circumstantial evidence. He was sentenced to 37.5 years in prison.
The case began to unravel after the newly formed Conviction Integrity Unit began its review in 2011. That same year, a man named Menachem Lieberman, today a Satmar yungerman living in Montreal, had approached Ranta’s trial lawyer to tell him he “had uncertainty and discomfort” about his identification of Ranta, and later gave the unit a sworn statement recounting that a detective had told him to “pick the one with the big nose” — Ranta — out of a police lineup.
Ranta also “claimed he had signed a blank file folder … only because he thought it was a form to allow him to make a phone call,” court papers said.
(With reporting by The Associated Press)