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Judge Frees Man Convicted In 1990 Killing Of Brooklyn Rabbi

David Ranta (credit: CBS 2)

David Ranta (credit: CBS 2)

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NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) – A man who spent more than two decades behind bars is now a free man.

A judge vacated the conviction of 58-year-old David Ranta on Thursday afternoon after a reinvestigation of his case cast serious doubt on evidence used to convict him in the cold-blooded shooting of a Brooklyn rabbi.

“I’m overwhelmed. I feel like I’m under water, swimming. Like I said from the beginning, I had nothing to do with this case,” Ranta said after leaving state court in Brooklyn.

Emotional relatives gathered around Ranta, including a daughter who was an infant at the time of his conviction but is now pregnant.

When asked outside court what he would do next, Ranta told reporters, “Get the hell out of here.”

Ranta was found guilty of murdering Rabbi Chaskel Werzberger, who was shot on Feb. 8, 1990 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The murder happened on Clymer Avenue as a suspect tried to rob a diamond courier, who escaped unharmed.

Werzberger was getting into his car when the suspect then grabbed him, shot him in the forehead, jumped in Werzberger’s car and drove away.

Though no physical evidence linked Ranta to the crime, a jury convicted him based on witness testimony and circumstantial evidence. Ranta fit the wanted man’s description of being blond and athletic.

“They used perjured testimony, it was clear,” said defense attorney Michael Baum. “They used a parade of crack heads and thieves to say whatever they had to.”

The defense blamed detectives with fabricating evidence,and coaching a witness at a line-up.  CBS 2’s John Slattery spoke with a now-retired detective from the case, 61-year-old Louis Scarcella.

“I stand by the confession.  I stand by the case,” Scarcella said.

But in 2011, Ranta’s case was reviewed by a new unit of the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office. The review cast doubt on witness testimony and eventually concluded detectives had mishandled aspects of the investigation.

One witness told investigators he remembers orders by detectives during a line up, advising: “pick the guy with the big nose.”

“It tells me we were right all along,” Baum said. “David was innocent.”

Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes said in a statement that an “exhaustive investigation” found “the foundation upon which Mr. Ranta’s conviction was based had been eroded and that no remaining evidence could lead to Mr. Ranta’s conviction, were he to be retried.”

Prosecutors believe the real killer died in a car crash two months after the murder. That man’s wife has provided information and other witnesses have recanted.

Community spokesman Issac Abraham said he heard the fatal shot. He is married to the rabbi’s cousin and was stunned by the development.

“That is just unbelievable, that a botched robbery and murder becomes a botched prosecution,” he said.

Ranta been serving time in a Buffalo prison since his conviction in 1991.

The Brooklyn DA’s Conviction Integrity Unit investigated the case and is looking into the accuracy and fairness of 14 other convictions.

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(TM and © Copyright 2013 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2013 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)