“Two days after he was sentenced, I get an anonymous call from a woman saying, ‘Your client is innocent; my husband is the killer,’” said veteran defense attorney Michael Baum ’73 (Psychology). “She hung up, but I knew she was telling the truth.”
That call led Baum to review the entire case of his former client, David Ranta, a man accused of murdering a prominent rabbi in 1991. Determined to identify the real killer and set his former client free, Baum’s commitment to justice led him on a 20-year journey during which he would discover the trial was filled with dubious witnesses and questionable police tactics.
His pro-bono work and dedication to his client would also lead to the freedom of 14 innocent men and an ongoing investigation into more than 70 cases that involved misconduct at the hands of now retired New York Police Department (NYPD) Detective Louis Scarcella.
“When I met David, I had no doubt in my mind he was innocent," said Baum. "He told me he had nothing to do with the murder. Many of my clients say that. But I knew in my heart he was telling the truth.”
Originally his court-appointed attorney, Baum continued to fight pro bono for Ranta’s innocence until long after he exhausted his appeals with various counsel. They caught a break in 2011 when Kings County District Attorney Charles Hynes created a Conviction Integrity Unit and invited defense lawyers to present evidence of possible wrongful convictions. Baum suggested they look into Ranta's case.
Now, armed with new evidence, Baum led the fight to vacate the conviction. He filed a motion in 1995 based on the woman's statement that her husband was the killer, but after a hearing that motion was denied. David spent another 17 years in jail before Baum's motion was renewed based on an eyewitness recantation. On March 21, 2013, after more than two decades behind bars, Ranta was flown from prison to a Brooklyn courtroom where the charges were dismissed, and he was released.
“I was sitting in the courtroom and couldn’t hold back the tears,” said Baum. “We’d waited so long to see justice served. It was tragic that David spent 23 years in jail for a murder he did not commit, but it was incredibly thrilling that he was finally exonerated.”
What Baum didn’t know at the time was that his former client’s newfound freedom would help set off a firestorm that would eventually see more than a dozen wrongful convictions overturned.
“David’s exoneration cast a spotlight on inappropriate investigation tactics,” said Baum. “One-witness identifications and/or false confessions were the M.O. in New York at the time.”
A few months after Ranta was released, The New York Times reported on accusations that Scarcella mishandled a number of investigations: fabricating evidence, coercing witnesses and concealing evidence of defendants’ innocence. The article reported that one person testified as an eyewitness in six separate, unrelated murder cases involving Scarcella. Soon after the Times’ story, the Brooklyn Conviction Integrity Unit began to re-investigate Scarcella’s cases.
“In a lot of ways, it started with David,” said Baum. “Acquittals are fulfilling every time, but his exoneration was a professional and personal highpoint. It was absolutely the highlight of my career.”
The David Ranta case was just one of 30 murder cases tried by Baum. He appeared several times before the Appellate Division, First and Second Departments, and the New York State Court of Appeals. He joined Brooklyn Defender Services in 1996. He now supervises their newly formed Homicide Practice and remains one of their top senior trial lawyers.
Born and raised in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, New York, Baum enrolled at SUNY New Paltz at the age of 16 and later attended the New England School of Law. He began his career as a prosecutor in the Kings County District Attorney’s Office where he served in the Appeals and Rackets Bureaus. He entered private practice in 1981 with a focus on criminal defense, civil litigation and appeals.
“There is no greater calling than the defense of the indigent,” said Baum. “I love what I do, and I am blessed to have the opportunity to serve the people of Brooklyn.”