Originally published March 26 2013
New York government threw man in prison for 23 years for murder he never committed
by J. D. Heyes
(NaturalNews) For most Americans, being locked up behind bars for 23 years for any reason is unthinkable.
Now imagine being locked up for that long - and being innocent.
That's exactly what happened to David Ranta, 58, of New York, who was wrongly convicted of killing a Hasidic rabbi more than two decades ago but who has recently been freed after a year-long investigation concluded the case against him was fatally flawed, Reuters reported.
"Sir, you are free to go," acting state Supreme Court Justice Miriam Cyrulnik told Ranta, to an eruption of tears and shouts of joy from relatives, including his daughter, who was just an infant when he was jailed.
State prosecutors joined Ranta's defense attorney, Pierre Sussman, in asking the judge to vacate Ranta's sentence "in the interest of justice."
"The evidence no longer establishes the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt," Assistant District Attorney John O'Mara, the chief of the conviction integrity unit, said in court.
'I had nothing to do with this case'
On Feb. 8, 1990, Ranta was found guilty of killing Rabbi Chaskel Werzberger and stealing his car as he attempted to flee an unsuccessful attempt to rob a diamond courier. At the time, the crime shook the Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn, prompting calls for quick justice.
"As I said from the beginning, I had nothing to do with this case," Ranta told reporters after he was freed.
Ranta's case is just one of a string of wrongful convictions that have gained media attention in recent months and which have created problems for Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes, who is facing a rare primary challenge in September; he is seeking a seventh four-year term.
On March 20, a federal judge blocked Hyne's office from retrying William Lopez, whose murder conviction in 1989 was overturned earlier this year following questions over witness accounts.
In 2010, Reuters reported. A federal judge freed Jabbar Collins after he had spent 16 years in prison for allegedly shooting his landlord. In that case, U.S. District Judge Dora Irizarry said she believed Brooklyn prosecutors had relied on phony testimony and threatened a witness. She went on to fault Hyne's office for continuing to deny officials had done anything wrong.
Hynes defended his office's record during a March 21 interview, saying he crated the conviction integrity unit in 2011 to examine legitimate claims of innocence.
"It's a very, very difficult thing to know that someone is in jail who should not be in jail," he said.
Phony witnesses, prosecutorial intimidation
Ranta became the third defendant freed because of new information turned up by the conviction integrity unit. Currently, said Reuters, the unit is looking into 14 other cases, most of which are homicides.
The unit decided to examine Ranta's case after Hynes spoke about the unit to a group of defense attorneys, including Michael Baum, the lawyer who initially represented Ranta at trial. Baum reportedly asked the office to look into Ranta's case.
Investigators soon found that a key witness, a teenager named Menachem Lieberman who picked Ranta out of a lineup, had since recanted. He said he did not recognize Ranta but selected him after a detective told him to "pick the guy with the big nose."
A jail house snitch and his girlfriend, both of whom fingered Ranta as the shooter, also admitted to prosecutors that they made up their story to secure a favorable plea deal.
For his part Ranta argued long and hard that prosecutors' case against him had problems, but in two appeals he failed to prove otherwise; prosecutors opposed his motion both times.
U.S. has highest incarceration rate
More maddening for justice-seekers is the fact that Chaim Weinberger, the courier target of the failed robbery attempt, testified at Ranta's trial that he wasn't the man who tried to steal the gems. What's more, during a hearing in 1995 at one of Ranta's appeals, Theresa Astin testified that her husband, Joseph Astin, actually committed the murder.
Joseph Astin died in April 1990, however - two months after the crime. Still, the evidence against Ranta was deemed proper until the integrity unit agreed to reexamine his case in 2012.
The number of prisoners who are eventually cleared could be rising because the United States imprisons more people than any other nation.
According to The New York Times, there are 2.3 million criminals behind bars in the United States, by far the largest per capita incarceration rate in the world.
"China, which is four times more populous than the United States, is a distant second, with 1.6 million people in prison," the paper said, though that figure does not include the "hundreds of thousands of people held in administrative detention, most of them in China's extrajudicial system of re-education through labor."
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