In the wintry darkness 23 years ago on a back street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a jewelry thief fleeing a botched robbery panicked and shot a Hasidic rabbi in the head.
Four days later, the rabbi, Chaskel Werzberger, an Auschwitz survivor, died of his wounds. Even in the New York City of 1990, as homicides crested at 2,245, the murder stirred grief and outrage. The “Slain Rabbi” was front-page tabloid news. Mayor David N. Dinkins traveled to Williamsburg’s Satmar enclave to sit in mourning and to offer a $10,000 reward.
The new Brooklyn district attorney, Charles J. Hynes, stood shoulder to shoulder with fur-hat-wearing Satmars, watching as they rocked back and forth and wailed as the pinewood coffin was carried out. He vowed to bring the killer to justice.
Forty detectives worked the case, soon led by the swaggering, cigar-chewing Detective Louis Scarcella. Working closely with an influential Satmar rabbi, Detective Scarcella arrested a drug-addicted, unemployed printer named David Ranta. Hasidic Jews surrounded the car that carried the accused man to jail, slapping the roof and chanting, “Death penalty!”
Mr. Ranta was convicted in May 1991 and sentenced to 37.5 years in maximum-security prison, where he remains to this day.
He is almost certainly not guilty.
This week Mr. Hynes, after a long investigation by a unit that he created to look into questionable convictions, plans to ask a state judge to release the prisoner. Mr. Ranta’s lawyer, Pierre Sussman, who conducted his own inquiry, said his client has been instructed to pack up his cell.
Mr. Ranta could walk free as early as Thursday. In the decades since a jury convicted him of murder, nearly every piece of evidence in this case has fallen away. A key witness told The New York Times that a detective instructed him to select Mr. Ranta in the lineup. A convicted rapist told the district attorney that he falsely implicated Mr. Ranta in hopes of cutting a deal for himself. A woman has signed an affidavit saying she too lied about Mr. Ranta’s involvement.
Detective Scarcella and his partner, Stephen Chmil, according to investigators and legal documents, broke rule after rule. They kept few written records, coached a witness and took Mr. 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 Mr. Ranta.
At trial, prosecutors acknowledged the detectives had misbehaved but depicted them as likable scamps. Reached in retirement on Tuesday, Mr. Scarcella defended his work. “I never framed anyone in my life,” he said.
No physical evidence ever connected Mr. Ranta to the murder.
He now sits in a cell at a maximum-security prison outside Buffalo. He is a touch shy; his gray hair is fast thinning. His voice still carries the slantwise intonations of working-class south Brooklyn. Asked how he survived, he said he was not sure he had.
“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,” he said. “I came in here as a 30-something with kids, a mother who was alive. This case killed my whole life.”