New York Times

May 13, 2004

Prosecutors Won't Oppose Tankleff's Hearing


Reversing their position, Suffolk County prosecutors agreed yesterday to a court hearing for a former Long Island man who says he is wrongly imprisoned for killing his parents.

In a letter to Judge Stephen L. Braslow of Suffolk County Court, District Attorney Thomas J. Spota said he was formally dropping his opposition to a hearing for the prisoner, Martin Tankleff, who was convicted of killing his mother and father in their luxurious waterfront home on the North Shore of Long Island in 1988.

In the letter, Mr. Spota said he and his assistant, Leonard Lato, based their new position on reassurances that a new witness, Glenn Harris, had changed his mind and agreed to testify without immunity from prosecution.

Mr. Harris, in a signed statement obtained by an investigator for Mr. Tankleff, has said he was the driver who took two accomplices to and from the Tankleff home in Belle Terre on the night of the attacks for what he thought was a burglary.

The two accomplices had no known relationship to Mr. Tankleff, but one was connected to Jerard Steuerman, the estranged business partner of Mr. Tankleff's father, Seymour. In their appeal, lawyers for Mr. Tankleff say Mr. Steuerman recently admitted committing the murders. He has denied any involvement, as have the two men named by Mr. Harris.

A lawyer for Mr. Tankleff, Bruce Barket, said yesterday that he was optimistic that Mr. Tankleff's convictions would be overturned "once all the evidence we have of Marty's innocence is heard." If the verdicts are thrown out, Mr. Tankleff could face a new trial.

Mr. Tankleff, now 32, was convicted of murdering his mother, Arlene, and father when he was 17, based on a disputed confession that he immediately disavowed and never signed. He has said he was sleeping in his bedroom and awoke to find his parents fatally bludgeoned and stabbed.

Mr. Steuerman was in the Tankleff home the night of the attacks for a poker game and was the last player to leave. He has admitted that he was under pressure from Seymour Tankleff to repay hundreds of thousands of dollars of loans. Several days after the attack, as Seymour lingered in the hospital before dying, Mr. Steuerman staged his own death and fled to California, assuming an alias and shaving his beard.

But the Suffolk police never seriously investigated Mr. Steuerman as a suspect. Instead, a Suffolk detective has said that after he arrived at the murder scene and found no signs of a robbery or burglary, he focused on Mr. Tankleff, wondering why he had not been attacked and why he seemed unemotional.

In hours of questioning Mr. Tankleff, the detective acknowledged that he faked a call to the hospital and said that the injured father had regained consciousness and identified his son as the attacker, though that never happened.

The detectives investigating the case said they suggested to the son that he might have blacked out or suppressed the crimes from his memory. Mr. Tankleff has said he wondered aloud if he could have attacked his parents and how he might have done it. The detective began writing the confession, though it was never finished because a lawyer demanded a halt to the interrogation.

The physical evidence did not match the confession, according to testimony at the trial. Despite the slashing and bludgeoning and signs of resistance, Mr. Tankleff had no scratches or bruises and no blood or skin scrapings under his fingernails. The supposed weapons, a kitchen knife and barbell, were clean, and experts said that the blows appeared to be from a hammer.

Nevertheless, a jury convicted Mr. Tankleff in 1990, and he was sentenced to 50 years to life in prison. Appeals to state and federal courts challenged the validity of the confession, but the convictions were upheld.

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