A grave miscarriage of justice was only partially corrected recently with the long-overdue release of David Ranta from prison. Ranta, now 58 years old, spent more than two decades behind bars for a murder that prosecutors now say he probably did not commit. Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes has taken credit for Ranta's release, claiming, "Ranta would still be in prison had I not formed the Conviction Integrity Unit."
What the DA has failed to do, however, is admit that he and his office played a substantial role in keeping Ranta behind bars for 23 years, even though the exonerating evidence he points to today had been right in front of him as early as 1991.
Ranta was found guilty of killing Rabbi Chaskel Werzberger on February 8,1990, following an unsuccessful attempt to rob a diamond courier. The explosive case rattled New York City with calls for swift justice.
Simply put, a fair and honest investigation would have uncovered that the case against Ranta was fatally flawed long ago, and basic due diligence would have given pause to any prosecutor.
The key eyewitness -- the intended robbery target himself -- testified at trial that Ranta was "100 percent not" the killer. Another important witness for the prosecution -- 13-year-old Menachem Lieberman -- now says he was coached by detectives to identify "the man with the big nose" in a lineup. But strong suggestions of coaching were readily apparent long ago on an audiotape prosecutors improperly withheld from Ranta's attorneys until the end of trial.
Prosecutors had an obligation to turn over this audiotape before trial, as the judge had ordered, so that his defense team could react meaningfully to key evidence. The trial judge himself pointed out the troubling nature of this disclosure, telling prosecutors, "This is the first audiotape I've heard where a DA permits a detective to be talking and mumbling where we can't hear what they are saying in the background."
The trial judge had also expressed concerns that the lead detectives may have set Ranta up, warning prosecutors, "[What the detectives did] in this case, in my opinion, is decide that Mr. Ranta is the guilty person and then they went out of their way to make sure that it tied up neatly in a package." According to press reports, the case detectives had allowed dubious criminals to smoke crack and consort with prostitutes in exchange for incriminating Ranta. Hynes actually approved an immunity deal for one convict, sealing it with a handshake.
Prosecutors failed to heed any of the bright red flags waving at them at trial or on appeal. In 1994 -- and again in 1996 and 2000 -- Hynes and his office fought tooth-and-nail against Ranta's release. One glaring example: his office attacked and dismissed the credibility of Theresa Astin, who testified in 1996 that her late husband, an armed robber who had been the prime suspect, had privately confessed to the murder.
The record is clear: the performance by Hynes and his office fell way short of what is acceptable for a prosecutor -- at trial or on appeal. And now Hynes apparently wants to place the blame solely on Louis Scarcella, the lead detective on the case.
Sadly, the Ranta case is part of a pattern of wrongful convictions that have plagued the Brooklyn DA in recent years. These cases include Jabbar Collins, who spent 16 years in prison before Hynes dismissed the murder charges against him -- only after a federal judge called a hearing to review allegations of prosecutorial misconduct by one of his top aides. Inexplicably, Hynes refuses to investigate this case further, even though the judge who reviewed it called the DA Office's handling of that case "shameful."
Then there is the case of William Lopez, whose 1989 murder conviction was recently overturned after he also spent 23 years in prison. The federal judge in that case called Lopez's prosecution "rotten from day one," citing, among other problems, "an overzealous and deceitful trial prosecutor." Yet there is no indication from Hynes that he will ever submit this case for further "integrity review." Recently, he vowed to appeal a decision to bar a retrial.
Internal conviction integrity units are best used to correct mistakes such as eyewitness misidentifications and false confessions. But what the Ranta, Collins and Lopez cases clearly show is that wrongful conviction cases premised on serious allegations of police and prosecutorial misconduct require independent review.
Notably, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman created a first-of-its-kind Conviction Review Bureau last year, which is built precisely to review cases involving allegations of such misconduct -- cases a DA may well be reluctant to investigate, especially after many years of fighting appeals.
DA Hynes should avail himself of Schneiderman's offer by referring the Ranta, Collins and Lopez cases, and others, to his review board. Or he should explain to the public his refusal to do so.
Justice demands nothing less.