The last time David Ranta walked free, the Berlin Wall had just fallen and Nelson Mandela had just been released from prison.
Now, 23 years later, the 58-year-old who was wrongfully convicted of murdering a New York City rabbi heard his handcuffs clink for the last time. He walked out of State Supreme Court in Brooklyn after Judge Miriam Cyrulnik vacated his conviction.
"It's clear that the effects of this case have been devastating," Cyrulnik said. "To say I'm sorry for what you have endured would be an understatement."
Ranta's relatives applauded in court and wailed audibly when the judge told him, "Sir you are free to go."
He walked from a cuffed position at defense table into tearful embrace of his family. When he emerged from court he was carrying a mesh laundry bag filled with his only possessions.
"For now I'll just say thank you all for your support," Ranta said.
Ranta was convicted of killing a rabbi in a 1990 botched robbery attempt of a diamond courier. The recently created Conviction Integrity Unit of the Brooklyn District Attorney's office determined after a year-long investigation that witnesses were coached and police mishandled evidence.
"There was new evidence which was developed which caused us to believe that the foundation of the case has been so degraded that we can no longer be confident that a jury would render a verdict of guilty," said Assistant District Attorney John O'Mara.
Ranta had proclaimed his innocence from the start. Investigators determined that detectives falsely claimed they took statements from Ranta and an eyewitness was instructed to pick Ranta from a police line-up.
"This was a travesty of justice from the beginning," defense attorney P. O. Sussman said.
Until today Ranta had been locked for nearly 23 years in a 6-by-9 foot cell near Buffalo. He began serving the sentence when his daughter was 2 years old. Today his daughter is six months pregnant with his grandchild.
"As I said from the beginning I had nothing to do with this case," Ranta said before he walked briskly outdoors toward freedom.
Prosecutors say the real killer may be a man who died in a car crash two months after the murder. They did not identify him.