NY Post: Witness Who Helped Put David Ranta In Prison For Murder Of Rabbi Werzberger Reveals Why He Recanted Testimony March 24, 2013 7:35 am
From a NY Post report: He helped send a wrongly accused man to prison because of what cops told him to say – and he helped get him out because of what the Torah commanded him to do.
Menachem Lieberman was just a scared 13-year-old when police steered him to finger David Ranta for the 1990 murder of Rabbi Chaskel Werzberger after a botched jewel heist in Williamsburg.
Ranta was released last week after nearly 23 years in prison, following a yearlong probe that determined the original cops on the case performed a shoddy investigation, failed to keep adequate notes and coached witnesses.
Lieberman was one of those witnesses 23 years ago – and his decision to finally recant his testimony was the big break in proving Ranta had been railroaded.
“A lot of things made me think back and realize that it was wrong – that a human being is in jail who should not be,” Lieberman told The Post.
It was Feb. 8, 1990, when blood was shed on Clymer Street in a robbery gone bad.
Jewel courier Chaim Weinberger – holding a suitcase filled with 50 pounds of uncut jewels worth $250,000 – was leaving his home on his way to catch a flight when he noticed he was being followed by a man with a pistol. He raced to his car and sped away, knocking the gunman down as he tore off.
The killer turned on Rabbi Werzberger, who happened to be warming up his 1985 Olds that cold morning. He shot him in the head, then drove off in his car. Rabbi Werzberger was niftar four days later.
Lieberman, now 36, was on his way to a Satmar yeshiva on Heyward Street when he noticed two men sitting in a station wagon. It was strange, he thought, because the car’s ignition was off, and “they were watching the street.”
The boy went to school and later heard that someone had been shot. He called his mother from a pay phone, and when he came home – he lived in the same building as the slain rabbi – the police were waiting for him.
“They showed me binders of faces of people to try to identify, but I didn’t find anyone there,” he recalled. “I gave them a description – I don’t remember what it was now, but it didn’t match up to David Ranta.”
He met with sketch artists, looked through more mug shots, but still nothing. Weeks turned into months.
That summer, he was summoned from summer camp in upstate Napanoch by cops. Ranta, a petty crook who admitted to being near the scene, had been arrested. Detectives wanted Lieberman to view a lineup at the 90th Precinct station house.
“As I walked in, there were a couple of police officers. I don’t remember their rank, their faces. I just know that somebody said to me, ‘Pick the guy with the big nose,’ ” he said. “And if you saw [Ranta’s] face, he has a very distinct nose. You can’t mistake it, even to this day.
“It was done in a real good way, as I was walking in, just planted in my head. So when I picked him out, I thought he must be the right guy – that my memory was wrong and they were right.
“You have to realize. I’m a Hasidic Jew who sees no TV, has no access to the outside world. I had no idea about the whole justice system or how it works. I was very afraid of this process.”
For Ranta, the die was cast. Lieberman testified against him at the trial. And despite a lack of physical evidence, and even Weinberger’s testimony for the defense that Ranta was not the gunman, Ranta was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 37 years in prison in 1991.
For Lieberman, life went on. He knew that Ranta had been convicted, knew that he himself had lied, but reconciled it by thinking that even if Ranta “is not the killer, he was involved.”
“But it was something that stayed in the background. It was history,” he added.
Lieberman moved to Montreal, worked in business, had seven kids.
But in 2010, a confluence of events dredged up the past.
“The Rubashkin case was very upsetting,” he said, referring to Sholom Rubashkin, former head of a kosher meat company in Iowa who was sentenced to 27 years in 2009. The Rubashkin case has become a rallying cry for the Orthodox community.
And it got Lieberman thinking generally about the criminal-justice system.
“I was this big conservative who believed in the death penalty, strong justice and lengthy prison terms,” he said. “But I really changed my mind.”
Another turning point was a chance encounter with Weinberger, the jewel courier, while on vacation in Miami in 2010.
“He started yelling at me – over and over – ‘You’re a liar! You’re a liar!’ ”
Lieberman started researching the Ranta case and came across stories in Der Shtern, a Yiddish-language magazine. “It put a lot of holes in it,” he said. “And I knew one piece that was definitely not true. And I realized that not only was my part not true – he might be innocent.”
So he met with Montreal’s chief rabbi, Rav Binyomin Weiss, who quoted from the Torah.
“He said ‘Tzedek tzedek tirdof,’ “ which translates to, “Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live.”
So in January 2011, Lieberman did.
He called Michael Baum, Ranta’s former defense attorney, whose two appeals had failed.
“I knew that someone would eventually come forward,” Baum said. Still, he wasn’t optimistic. Unbeknownst to Lieberman, Theresa Astin came forward in 1996 to say her deceased husband had been the killer – and still the verdict stood.
“My feeling was that if that didn’t get him a new trial, what good is Lieberman’s recant?” Baum said.
But by “an amazing coincidence,” the district attorney’s newly formed Conviction Integrity Unit came to Baum’s office later that year and asked if he knew of cases needing reexamination. Baum did, and thanks to Lieberman, he now had the case’s first new piece of evidence in years. It was a “sliver of hope.”
But no good deed goes unpunished.
Lieberman said Pierre Sussman, Ranta’s current attorney, called him last week and threatened to sue him.
Sussman did not return a request for comment.
“I don’t care what he says,” Lieberman said. “I was out for justice, and justice was served.”
Source: THE NY POST