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Monday, March 7, 2016

The David Ranta Wrongful Conviction Case

     In 1990, following a botched robbery of a diamond courier in Brooklyn, New York, the robbers carjacked and murdered Rabbi Chaskel Werzberger, a survivor of the Holocaust. A few days after the highly publicize murder, police officers picked up a 35-year-old unemployed drug addict named David Ranta.

     Following his interrogation by NYPD detective Louis Scarcella, Ranta signed a confession in which he admitted helping plot the diamond robbery. A boy who had witnessed the crime, picked Ranta out of a police line-up.

     A few months later, a Brooklyn jury, relying on the defendant's confession, and the line-up identification, found David Ranta guilty of murdering the Rabbi. The judge sentenced him to 35 years in prison.

     The Conviction Integrity Unit of the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office took up the old Werzberger murder case after it became apparent that the evidence against Ranta had been unreliable. Years after the conviction, the young eyewitness of the diamond robbery informed investigators that detectives had coached him into picking Ranta out of the line-up. Evidence also surfaced that cast serious doubt on the reliability of the confession.

     On March 21, 2013, David Ranta walked free after serving 23 years behind bars. He was 58,

     Louis Scarcella, the retired NYPD detective who was in charge of the case, told an Associated Press reporter that Brooklyn prosecutors had pressured him to bring the Rabbi's killer to justice quickly. (I have no doubt that is true.) "I caught a lot of cases and I got confessions," Scarcella said. "I was called in and I did my job and I got confessions." (A detective's job is to get the truth.) Scarcella denied coaching the boy into the line-up identification, and said he continued to stand behind his role in the case.

     There was no evidence to suggest that Detective Scarcella had intentionally framed an innocent man. Moreover, the prosecutor in the case also bore responsibility in this wrongful conviction. But because of public pressure to catch the killer of a Holocaust surviving Rabbi, the prosecutor went ahead and put the burden of determining the guilt or innocence of this defendant on the jury. And he did it with unreliable evidence. Many jurors assume, even in weak cases, that because the defendant is being prosecuted, he must be guilty. It appeared that neither the detective nor the prosecutor were interested in digging deeper into the case. If they had, Ranta would have been exonerated and the real perpetrators brought to justice.

     Two days after he walked out of prison, David Ranta suffered a massive heart attack. He survived his illness, and in February 2014, settled his $150 million lawsuit against the city of New York for $6.4 million. 

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