By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A New York man convicted of killing a Hasidic rabbi more than two decades ago was freed on Thursday after his conviction was vacated as a miscarriage of justice.
David Ranta, 58, spent 23 years in prison until the conviction integrity unit of the Brooklyn district attorney's office concluded after a year-long investigation that the case against him was fatally flawed.
"Sir, you are free to go," acting state Supreme Court Justice Miriam Cyrulnik told Ranta at a Brooklyn courthouse as relatives, including his daughter who was an infant when he was jailed, erupted in tears and shouts of joy.
Prosecutors had joined Ranta's defense attorney, Pierre Sussman, in asking Cyrulnik to vacate Ranta's conviction "in the interest of justice."
"The evidence no longer establishes the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt," said Assistant District Attorney John O'Mara, the chief of the conviction integrity unit.
Ranta was found guilty of killing Rabbi Chaskel Werzberger on February 8, 1990, and stealing his car in an effort to flee following an unsuccessful attempt to rob a diamond courier. The crime rattled the Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn and prompted calls for swift justice.
"As I said from the beginning, I had nothing to do with this case," Ranta told reporters following the hearing.
The case is the latest in a string of wrongful convictions that have gained media attention in recent months, creating a headache for Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes, who faces a rare primary challenge in September as he seeks a seventh four-year term.
On Wednesday, a federal judge blocked Hynes's office from retrying a man, William Lopez, whose 1989 murder conviction was overturned earlier this year after questions arose about witness accounts.
In 2010, a federal judge freed another man, Jabbar Collins, after he spent 16 years in prison for allegedly shooting his landlord. U.S. District Judge Dora Irizarry concluded that Brooklyn prosecutors had relied on false testimony and threatened a witness and faulted Hynes's office for continuing to deny any wrongdoing.
In an interview on Thursday, Hynes defended his office's record and said he created the conviction integrity unit in 2011 to investigate legitimate claims of innocence.
"It's a very, very difficult thing to know that someone is in jail who should not be in jail," he said.
Ranta is the third defendant freed as a result of the conviction integrity unit, which currently is examining 14 other cases, mostly homicides.
It began looking into the Ranta case after Hynes spoke about the unit to a gathering of defense lawyers, including Michael Baum, the lawyer who represented Ranta at trial. Baum asked the office to examine Ranta's case.
Investigators soon found that a key witness, a teenager named Menachem Lieberman who picked Ranta out of a lineup, had since recanted. He said he did not recognize Ranta but selected him after a detective told him to "pick the guy with the big nose."
A jail house snitch and his girlfriend, both of whom fingered Ranta as the shooter, also admitted to prosecutors that they made up their story to secure a favorable plea deal.
Ranta had long argued that the case against him was troubled, but he failed in two appeals, with prosecutors opposed to his motion in both instances.
Chaim Weinberger, the courier who was the target of the failed robbery, had testified at Ranta's trial that Ranta was not the man who tried to steal his gemstones. In 1995, at a hearing to consider one of Ranta's appeals, Theresa Astin testified that her husband, Joseph Astin, had committed the murder.
Astin died in April 1990, two months after the crime occurred. Nevertheless, the evidence against Ranta was deemed sufficient until prosecutors reopened the case last year.
"As soon as we reached that conclusion, there was no point in keeping David Ranta in jail another day," Hynes said.
At Ranta's brief court appearance on Thursday, Cyrulnik apologized to Ranta for his years in prison.
"Mr. Ranta, to say that I'm sorry for what you have endured would be an understatement and grossly inadequate, but I say it to you anyway," the judge said.
As he left the courthouse, Ranta carried a purple mesh bag with the belongings he had gathered from his prison cell only hours earlier. Asked whether there was anything he wanted to do now that he was free, he smiled and said, "Yeah. Get the hell out of here, maybe."
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Andrew Hay, Dan Grebler and Leslie Adler)