Friday, February 21, 2014
Frances Robles of The New York Times reported yesterday that New York City has settled a wrongful conviction claim for $6.4 million by David Ranta, an innocent man who was framed for a murder by a rogue Brooklyn detective named Louis Scarcella. Ranta served 23 years in prison and suffered a heart attack the day after he was released from prison. Fortunately, he survived the heart attack.
The crime occurred in 1990. The victim was Chaskell Werzberger, a Hassidic rabbi and Holocaust survivor who was shot in the head as he got into his car by a person who had robbed a jewelry store across the street. The robber stole his car and used it as a getaway vehicle.
The unsolved murder upset the Orthodox Jewish community that had overwhelmingly voted for the newly elected District Attorney, Charles J. Hynes. He felt pressured to solve the crime and convict the perpetrator.
Ranta was convicted by eyewitness testimony and a confession that he denied making.
Many years after the conviction, one eyewitness admitted that Detective Scarcella told him which photograph to select in a photo spread. Two other witnesses subsequently admitted they had lied in exchange for leniency in matters pending against them.
A reinvestigation of the case by the Conviction Integrity Unit of the D.A.’s office resulted in the discovery that Detective Scarcella had investigated a suspect named Joseph Astin, who was identified as the killer by an anonymous caller. However, he stopped investigating Astin after Astin died in a traffic accident and he did not submit any paperwork documenting his efforts.
Astin’s widow later claimed that Astin had committed the murder, but efforts to free Ranta were unsuccessful.
Ranta’s wrongful conviction is not the only case in which now retired Detective Scarcella used false confessions and coached witnesses to lie in order to obtain a conviction.
Kenneth P. Thompson, the new Brooklyn District Attorney who defeated Charles J. Hines last November in a landslide election due in no small part to citizen outrage about the way he mishandled wrongful-conviction complaints about Scarcella, has convened a three-person panel to review dozens of his cases.
Ranta is still planning to sue the State of New York.