The Brooklyn District Attorney’s review of 90 questionable convictions, the tarnished reputation of former detective Louis Scarcella, the seven exonerations in Brooklyn in 2014, the renewed focus on police and prosecutiorial misconduct during New York City’s crack era–it all started with David Ranta.
Ranta was exonerated in 2013, after having served 23 years in prison. Ranta is now suing the city for $150 million. Yet the law enforcement misbehavior that led to his wrongful conviction was so blatant and outrageous that the city comptroller’s office offered Ranta a $6.4 million settlement before the city’s legal department even got involved in the lawsuit. It was an unprecedented move.
The settlement, however, did not mean the city was done paying for the injustice. On Wednesday, Ranta’s wife and children sued the city for $15 million.
Ranta’s family is able to sue the city because the settlement addressed only the wrongs committed against Ranta.
“David Ranta is the sole claimant with whom we settled,” Eric Sumberg, a spokesman at the comptroller’s office, told the New York Times. “Anyone is allowed to file claims with our office and we will evaluate all claims based on their merits.”
Wednesday’s suit focuses on the suffering of Ranta’s wife and two children. The complaint states that they were “branded as the family of a murderer and deprived of the love and affection of their husband and father.”
It lists as defendants the city, the NYPD, and the two lead detectives in the case, Louis Scarcella and Steve Chmil.
Ranta had proclaimed his innocence from the time he was arrested for the February 1990 murder of Rabbi Chaskel Werzberger. It was a high-profile crime and it occurred just weeks after Charles Hynes took office as Brooklyn’s District Attorney.
“Pressure on police to solve this brutal murder was great,” the lawsuit states, adding that Scarcella and Chmil found a way to arrest Ranta “without any reasonable suspicion or probable cause.”
At trial, prosecutors told the jury that Ranta had confessed to the crime. A witness identified Ranta as the culprit. The jury convicted Ranta.
Ranta claimed that Scarcella fabricated the confession attributed to him. Hynes fought Ranta’s appeal for years.
Ranta’s argument became stronger when the witness recanted his testimony and said that Scarcella had told him to pick the man with “the big nose” in a police line-up. Then two other witnesses, who were jail inmates during the Ranta investigation, admitted that they had implicated Ranta in exchange for favorable treatment from Scarcella. Investigators from Hynes’s office discovered that Scarcella allowed the witnesses out of jail to smoke crack and meet with prostitutes in a motel.
In March 2013, a judge vacated Ranta’s conviction. The news about Scarcella’s alleged misconduct in the case brought new media scrutiny to Scarcella’s other investigations. So Hynes, approaching a re-election campaign, announced that his office would review every conviction involving Scarcella, more than 50 cases in all. Hynes was defeated by Kenneth Thompson in November 2013 and Thompson has since expanded the review to include several cases that did not involve Scarcella.