A man who was freed last year after being jailed since 1990 in the killing of Rabbi Chatzkel Werzberger, Hy”d, will receive a $6.4 million wrongful imprisonment payout.
David Ranta’s controversial conviction in the brutal slaying of a respected leader in the Satmar shul in Williamsburg roiled the Jewish community over a period of months two decades ago and made headlines even in the face of the city’s soaring homicide rate. He was set free in April 2013 after an investigation by then-Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes found he was probably framed.
The DA’s office is currently investigating more than 50 cases associated with Louis Scarcella, the tough-talking detective who procured Ranta’s confession.
Ranta, the only person convicted in the gruesome murder, said all along that he was not the murderer, an assertion that the Werzberger family agrees with. The family says that the real gunman got away and that Ranta was a scapegoat.
Ranta had filed a $150-million claim against the city, but the $6.4 settlement was agreed upon after negotiations with the city comptroller’s office, The New York Times reported.
“While no amount of money could ever compensate David for the 23 years that were taken away from him, this settlement allows him the stability to continue to put his life back together,” said Pierre Sussman, Ranta’s lawyer, who added that he was still pursuing an unjust conviction claim against the state of New York.
Rabbi Werzberger, a Holocaust survivor known as Reb Chatzkel Shamash in Satmar since he was the shamash at K’hal Yetev Lev of Williamsburg, was shot on Feb. 8, 1990, by a man fleeing a botched robbery. Thousands attended the levayah, and then-Mayor David Dinkins offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to an arrest.
Hynes, then a newly elected DA, put Scarcella in charge of the case. Working with the family and a team of 40 detectives, they soon arrested Ranta, and prosecutor Barry Schreiber got a conviction from a jury in May of 1991.
But key witnesses say they were coached by detectives to pick out Ranta in the lineup — at least one recalled that police directed him to choose the “guy with the big nose” — and others who testified later said that they lied in hopes of cutting a better deal in their own tangles with the law.
Chaim Weinberger, the jeweler who was the target of the robbery, said he got a good look at the robber and recalled seeing a tall, blond man. While Ranta is not tall or blond, Joe Astin, whom an anonymous caller suggested the police talk to about the story, was.
But Astin, who had several other armed robbery convictions on his record prior to the 1990 murder, died during a police chase two months after the Werzberger tragedy. And his wife Theresa, who had consistently pointed the finger at Ranta, backtracked in 1996, and testified that her husband had admitted to the murder.
Police detectives dismissed her testimony as worthless and refused to toss Ranta’s guilty verdict.
The news of the settlement came as Kenneth Thompson, the new district attorney, convened a new three-member panel to review all of Scarcella’s cases.