US & Canada

Officials: Ranta innocent in Chaskel Werzberger murder

Satmar ultra-Orthodox Jewish men congregate in Brooklyn in 2011
Image caption Werzberger was part of the Satmar Jewish group, members of which are shown at a 2011 gathering

New York City prosecutors have asked a court to release a man they now say was unjustly convicted of murdering a rabbi more than two decades ago.

David Ranta was imprisoned for the 1990 murder of Holocaust survivor Chaskel Werzberger in a botched robbery.

Prosecutors say they lack sufficient evidence Ranta shot him in the head, and the New York Times has reported detectives mishandled the case.

Ranta, now 58, is due to appear before a judge on Thursday.

'Killed my life'

Prosecutors said in court papers on Wednesday that they "no longer have sufficient evidence to prove the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt".

Ranta could be freed as soon as Thursday and has been told to clear his cell in a maximum security prison, the New York Times reported.

"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 said in a prison interview with the newspaper.

"I came in here as a 30-something with kids, a mother who was alive. This case killed my whole life."

The murder of Rabbi Werzberger during a botched attempt to rob another man of a suitcase full of diamonds sparked outrage in New York's close-knit and politically powerful community of Satmar Hasidic Jews.

Thousands of mourners attended his funeral and then-Mayor David Dinkins offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to an arrest.

Ranta, who was unemployed and addicted to drugs, was convicted in 1991 and sentenced to 37 years in prison.

According to an investigation by the New York Times, detectives in the case kept inadequate records, coached a witness, and wrote down Ranta's confession in circumstances that the trial judge found troubling.

No physical evidence connected Ranta to the killing, and after his conviction several witnesses recanted their testimony, the newspaper reported.

Prosecutors in New York City's Brooklyn borough began re-examining the case after District Attorney Charles Hynes formed a task force to investigate possible false convictions.

The lead detective in the case, Louis Scarcella, has defended the investigation, saying he never framed anyone.

Relatives of the victim have said they are shocked by the development and still believe Ranta was involved in the crime.

"For this to happen 23 years later is mind-boggling," community leader Isaac Abraham told the Associated Press.

"He can only claim he wasn't the shooter but he can never claim he wasn't involved."