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Sunday, March 31, 2013

DA’s Role In Rabbi Chaskel Werzberger Murder Case Questioned

Late last month, after 23 years behind bars for crimes he almost certainly did not commit, a gray-haired David Ranta, 58, carrying a purple fishnet laundry bag containing all his worldly possessions, walked out of State Supreme Court in Brooklyn a free man. (Ranta suffered a serious heart attack just a day after his release but is said to be recovering and in “good spirits).

Ranta, who was convicted in 1991 of attempting to rob a chasidic jewelry courier and then murdering a prominent chasidic rabbi, was released after a yearlong investigation by the Brooklyn District Attorney’s recently established Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU).

The investigation, prompted by Ranta’s trial attorney, Michael Baum, found that “the evidentiary foundation upon which the jury relied in delivering its verdict in this case has been significantly eroded.” In its reporting on the unraveling of the case, The New York Times highlighted the intense community pressure to solve the case and the conduct of one detective in particular as playing major roles in Ranta’s wrongful conviction.

Upon Ranta’s release, the head of the CIU, John O’Mara, told The Daily News “We did the right thing,” in releasing Ranta — something that can hardly be disputed. However, the case against Ranta was clearly flawed from the start, observers say. And a review of the various appeals and motions Ranta filed while he was incarcerated — all of which were vigorously opposed by Brooklyn DA Charles Hynes and denied by the courts — indicate that these flaws were not uncovered by the CIU, but were well known to the prosecution for 20 years. (One piece of new evidence was the admission by a chasidic man that he had been coached to lie during the lineup).

The problems with the initial case include the fact that there was no physical evidence connecting Ranta to the crime, and that a key eyewitness insisted Ranta was not the culprit. The main witness linking Ranta to both crimes was a crack-addicted jailhouse snitch who received immunity for his crimes and a sweetheart deal on his own numerous pending charges in exchange for his testimony. In addition, the lead detective on the case removed potential suspects from prison and entertained them. Ranta’s confession (which he denied making) was not tape recorded, but transcribed by the detective.

And this includes only what was known to the defense at the time of the trial.

All of this has led some observers to suggest that Hynes’ release of Ranta, without acknowledging any culpability on the part of his own office, was timed to burnish his reputation in what is shaping up to be a potentially tough re-election fight later this year.

“As in almost all wrongful conviction litigations, so-called new evidence of innocence is known to prosecutors and judges years, sometimes decades, before a case is finally resolved,” Lonnie Soury, an expert in wrongful convictions who helped to free Martin Tankleff and the West Memphis Three and is the founder of, told The Jewish Week.

“The Ranta case was no different. The ‘new’ evidence was known to Hynes’ office for years, and this man should have been released a long time ago. But one cannot overlook the significance of the timing of this decision as Hynes has taken tremendous heat for the wrongful conviction of Jabbar Collins, a [$150 million] civil suit for which is now underway in the federal court. This is an election year.”

Collins was convicted of the 1994 murder of a chasidic landlord and, after spending 15 years in jail, won his release in 2010. It came after a federal judge vacated his conviction in the face of significant evidence that Collins and his attorney had developed of prosecutorial misconduct. (Last year Hynes was forced to drop charges against Darrell Dula and Ronald Bozeman, both of whom had been jailed awaiting trial, after evidence of misconduct by prosecutors emerged. In February, the murder conviction of William Lopez, who had spent 23 years in jail, was thrown out by a federal judge.)

According to the prosecution’s narrative, the murder of Rabbi Chaskel Werzberger, for which Ranta was wrongly convicted, stemmed from the botched robbery of a jewelry courier, Chaim Weinberger, in the early morning hours of Feb. 8, 1990. Weinberger, held up at gunpoint in his car, managed to get away. Then, according to the prosecution, unable to locate his getaway car, the gunman approached the idling car of Rabbi Werzberger, a chief assistant to the Satmar sect’s then-Grand Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum. The would-be robber fired at Rabbi Werzberger through the car window, opened the door, shoved the rabbi’s body onto the street and drove off in his car. Rabbi Werzberger died from his injuries four days later.

The killing sent shockwaves through the tight-knit Satmar community, where Rabbi Werzberger, a Holocaust survivor, was revered.

Under mounting pressure from the chasidic community to solve the crime, the police worked feverishly, with Satmar power broker Rabbi Leib Glanz acting as a liaison between the police and the Satmar community.   Five members of a Southern California family were killed Saturday when their van was rear-ended by an 18-year-old driver who was later arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence, authorities said.

The dead were among seven family members who were in the van, authorities said. The other two — the 40-year-old female driver and a 15-year-old boy — were hospitalized in critical condition.

Jean Soriano of California was booked into the Clark County Detention Center after he was treated and released at University Medical Center in Las Vegas, Nevada Highway Patrol Trooper Loy Hixson said.

Read more at: The jewish week

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