David Ranta, now 58, spent the last 23 years in prison for the February 1990 murder of ultraorthodox Brooklyn rabbi Chaskel Werzberger. A judge released Ranta Thursday, terming his imprisonment a "miscarriage of justice."
The case against Ranta began to crumble in 1996, when Theresa Astin came forward to say that Joseph Astin, her husband at the time of the murder, had returned home that day and confessed to her. Joseph Astin was killed in a police chase in April 1990. The judge who presided over Ranta's 1991 trial declined to toss the charges based on Theresa Astin's statement, due to her checkered past.
Rabbi Werzberger was fatally shot in the head after a failed jewelry heist. The murderer had just attempted to rob a jewelry courier, but failed after the courier rammed him with a car. Panicked, the thief shot Werzberger, who was warming his car nearby, then drove off. At trial, the courier testified that Ranta was "100 percent not" the killer.
A review of the case by The New York Times points to two forces leading to Ranta's wrongful imprisonment: an aggressive detective and intense political pressure in favor of a speedy arrest and conviction.
The case finally came undone when Menachem Lieberman, a 13-year-old witness at the time of the trial, disclosed that he was coached by a detective to pick the man with the biggest nose out of a police lineup. Four of the five initial witness lineups had not picked Ranta. A convicted rapist and his girlfriend also confessed to fabricating testimony.
During sentencing in 1991, The Times notes, Ranta said "this is all a total frame setup. ... I hope to God he brings out the truth because a lot of people are going to be ashamed of themselves."
On the eve of his release, Ranta told The Times that after years in a maximum security prison "what's ahead scares me." The lead detective on the case, Louis Scarcella, denied wrongdoing, telling The Times, "I never framed anyone in my life."