NEW YORK — A man put behind bars for the 1990 killing of a Brooklyn rabbi was on the verge of freedom Wednesday after prosecutors told a judge they support tossing out his conviction.
David Ranta was to appear Thursday in state court, where a judge will rule on a defense motion to vacate his second-degree murder conviction.
Based on its own re-investigation of the case, the Brooklyn District Attorney's office filed papers on Wednesday supporting the motion. They also told the judge they want the murder indictment dismissed, since they "no longer have sufficient evidence to prove the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt."
If the judge agrees, the 58-year-old Ranta could walk out the courtroom Thursday afternoon as a free man. His dramatic reversal of fortune was first reported Wednesday by The New York Times.
"I'd lie there in the cell at night and I think: I'm the only one in the world who knows I'm innocent," Ranta told the Times from a Buffalo prison. "I came in here as a 30-something with kids, a mother who was alive. This case killed my whole life."
The case dates to Feb. 8, 1990, when Rabbi Chaskel Werzberger, a Holocaust survivor and a leader of the tight-knit Satmar Hasidic community in Williamsburg, was shot in the head by a man fleeing a botched robbery.
Thousands attended the rabbi's funeral, and Mayor David Dinkins offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to an arrest.
After Ranta's arrest, Hasidic Jews surrounded the car that carried him to jail and chanted, "Death penalty!"
Ranta, a drug-addicted, unemployed printer, was convicted in May 1991 and sentenced to 37 1/2 years in prison.
But the Times, citing investigators and legal documents, said that the detectives who arrested him broke numerous rules. They kept few written records, coached a witness and took Ranta's confession under what a judge described as highly dubious circumstances. They allowed two dangerous criminals, an investigator said, to leave jail, smoke crack cocaine and visit with prostitutes in exchange for incriminating Ranta.
No physical evidence connected Ranta to the murder.
"Now you people do what you got to do, because I feel this is all a total frame setup," Ranta said at his sentencing. "When I come down on my appeal, I hope to God he brings out the truth because a lot of people are going to be ashamed of themselves."
The lead detective, Louis Scarcella, defended his work. "I never framed anyone in my life," he told the newspaper.
The turn of events has shocked the family members of the slain rabbi, and hasn't shaken their belief that there's still credible evidence Ranta helped plan the failed holdup, said Isaac Abraham, a Jewish community leader and close family friend.
"For this to happen 23 years later is mind-boggling," Abraham said. "He can only claim he wasn't the shooter but he can never claim he wasn't involved."