Human Rights

13-Year-Old Witness Told to "Pick the Guy With the Biggest Nose,” By Police, Sending Innocent Man to Prison for 2 Decades

“I was too young back then to realize that this was a setup," the now-grown witness said.

After 23 years behind bars, a Brooklyn man was set free due to mounting evidence that he did not kill prominent Rabbi, Chaskel Werzberger, in 1991. “"Right now, I feel like I'm under water swimming," David Ranta, 53, told reporters just moments after becoming a free man, "This is overwhelming."

Ranta’s overturned conviction rests partly on the claims of a witness who says New York police instructed him to identify the wrong suspect when he was 13. Menachem Lieberman says he suffered too long with the guilt of sending an innocent man to jail for decades, causing him to approach investigators with a reversed statement in 2011. He recounted the moment in question to CNN’s Anderson Cooper last night.

“As I was walking into the room to the line-up, they basically told me that I should pick the guy with the biggest nose,” Lieberman told CNN, “I was too young back then to realize that this was a setup. To me this was just basically, I never saw a lineup before, I was just part of the process.”

Lieberman’s reversal spurred an investigation that eventually led prosecutors to doubt Ranta’s guilty conviction. John O’Mara, the assistant district attorney says “There were a number of things wrong with the case.” Reviewing the case, investigators found a widow who claims her husband was the killer, as well as a former jail inmate who said he manufactured statements about Ranta for his own gain.

At least one of the investigators originally involved with Ranta’s case denies allegations that his unit coached the 13-year-old Lieberman to point out the wrong suspect.

"They're saying that I framed it," Scarcella told CNN, "I want to go on record saying this: I never framed anyone in my life, and you would have to be a low, low devil to do something like that. I slept very good for the last 22 years."

On February 8, 1990, a gunman who had just moments ago botched a diamond robbery approached Werzberger in his car and shot him dead in the head. Although no physical evidence linked Ranta to the crime, he was convicted by a jury and sentenced to 37.5 years in prison based on witness testimonies.

“Mr. Ranta, to say that I'm sorry for what you have endured would be an understatement and grossly inadequate,” said Judge Miriam Cyrulnik moments after overturning Ranta’s conviction, “But I’ll say it anyway. I am sorry.”

Ranta’s lawyer says his client is planning on filing a civil rights lawsuit against the City of New York and the city police department that took away 23 years of his life.


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Steven Hsieh is an editorial assistant at AlterNet and writer based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter @stevenjhsieh.