December 22, 2007
Jailed 17 Years, Long Island Man Gets Second Trial
By BRUCE LAMBERT
A state appeals court on Friday overturned the conviction of a Long Island man imprisoned 17 years for the grisly murders of his parents in 1988. The decision cited the “cumulative effect” of new witnesses and extensive new evidence that have emerged in recent years, pointing to other suspects as the real killers.
The man, Martin H. Tankleff, was a teenager in 1990 when a jury convicted him, largely on the basis of an incomplete confession written by detectives, which he repudiated almost immediately and never signed.
The long campaign to free him drew national attention and support from a battery of prominent pro bono lawyers and former prosecutors and judges, as well as his relatives and a private investigator who unearthed the new evidence. But several appeals were denied by state and federal courts.
Friday’s decision, a unanimous ruling by a four-judge panel in the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court in Brooklyn, granted a new trial for Mr. Tankleff, who is now 36. It also renewed attention to questions he has raised about police and prosecutorial methods in Suffolk County, where a state investigation found rampant misconduct in the 1980s.
“It is abhorrent to our sense of justice and fair play to countenance the possibility that someone innocent of a crime may be incarcerated or otherwise punished for a crime which he or she did not commit,” the judges wrote in a 21-page opinion.
Suffolk County prosecutors said they were considering whether to appeal the ruling. “We respectfully disagree with the court’s decision,” said District Attorney Thomas J. Spota. If the ruling stands, Mr. Tankleff will be retried under the original indictment, said the assistant district attorney in the case, Leonard Lato.
Mr. Tankleff’s lawyers began arranging bail for his release, which prosecutors have agreed to. “Marty was very, very happy,” said one lawyer, Bruce A. Barket, who gave his client the news in a phone call to the Great Meadow state prison, near Lake George, where Mr. Tankleff is serving a sentence of 50 years to life.
“Literally his first words were: ‘Finally, justice is starting to tilt to us,’” Mr. Barket said.
Mr. Tankleff’s jubilant supporters said they welcomed the opportunity for him to prove his innocence at a new trial. But they demanded the appointment of a special prosecutor to take over the case and pursue the other suspects, saying they did not trust Suffolk County law enforcement.
“We handed this evidence to them, and they did nothing,” said Ron Falbee, Mr. Tankleff’s cousin and a family spokesman. “They’ve been covering up something, big time.” Prosecutors have denied the accusation. Mr. Tankleff has also accused the lead detective in the case, K. James McCready, of lying and shielding the real culprits. The detective, now retired, has denied doing so.
Mr. Tankleff has not wanted for defenders. His cause has drawn help from public relations consultants and volunteers who organized a Web site. Friend-of-the-court briefs were filed by former state and federal prosecutors and judges, state and national defense lawyer associations and watchdog groups like the Innocence Project. The case was featured on Court TV and news programs including “48 Hours.”
Mr. Tankleff had just turned 17 when his parents, Seymour and Arlene, were slashed and bludgeoned in their spacious home in Belle Terre, on a North Shore cliff overlooking Long Island Sound on Sept. 7, 1988. He was arrested that day, based on the disputed confession, which became the prime evidence in his conviction.
Appeals to state and federal courts challenging the admissibility of the confession were rejected, sometimes narrowly.
Several new witnesses came forward starting in 2003, implicating Joseph Creedon and Peter Kent as the killers. Mr. Tankleff said he believed the two had acted at the behest of his father’s embittered business partner, Jerard Steuerman. Under oath, the three men have all denied guilt, though other witnesses said they had admitted their involvement.
Last year, Judge Stephen Braslow of Suffolk County Court denied an appeal, discounting the witnesses as “a cavalcade of nefarious characters.” Several had psychological problems, criminal records or histories of drug abuse. But others included a restaurant owner, a cabinet maker, a retired businessman and a priest.
In reversing Judge Braslow, the appellate court said: “The county court in effect applied a blanket disqualification for all of the defendant’s proffered evidence. It viewed almost all of the defendant’s witnesses as questionable, untrustworthy or unreliable.” But, the appellate judges said, “At this juncture there is no basis to conclude that all of the subject evidence is inadmissible.”
The panel noted that the lower court had “completely disregarded a crucial fact which is pivotal to our determination” — that many of the witnesses did not know each other, yet implicated Mr. Creedon and Mr. Steuerman.
“It appears that the county court never considered that the cumulative effect of the new evidence created a probability that, had such evidence been received at trial, the verdict would have been more favorable to the defendant,” the appellate court said. It concluded, “This evidence warrants a new trial.”
The decision was signed by Judges Reinaldo E. Rivera, Gabriel M. Krausman, Anita R. Florio and Mark C. Dillon.
At the time of the murders, Seymour Tankleff was pressuring Mr. Steuerman to repay him $500,000, and they were fighting over control of their growing chain of Strathmore Bagel stores, witnesses testified early in the case. Mr. Steuerman was at the Tankleff home for a late poker party on the night of the murders and was the last player to leave, according to testimony.
When Detective McCready and other investigators arrived at the scene the next morning, Martin Tankleff — who had called 911 and administered first aid to his father — told them to investigate Mr. Steuerman. Instead, they focused on Mr. Tankleff.
Detective McCready acknowledged that he had tricked Mr. Tankleff during interrogation, telling him that investigators had found his hairs in his mother’s hands, that a humidity test proved he had used the shower to wash off the blood and that his father had regained consciousness and named Mr. Tankleff as the attacker.
None of that was true, but Mr. Tankleff said he began doubting himself. He told the interrogators: “Could I have blacked out ... and done this?” and adding, “Could I be possessed?” That led to the disputed admissions.
A co-founder of the Innocence Project, Barry Scheck, said on Friday, “This had all the earmarks of a classic false confession.”
A decade after Mr. Tankleff went to prison, a private investigator working for the defense, Jay Salpeter, began turning up new evidence. The first breakthrough was finding Glenn Harris, an ex-convict who said he had driven Mr. Creedon and Mr. Kent to and from the Tankleff house that night. Other witnesses followed, including Mr. Creedon’s son, who said his father had admitted to the killings.
Despite Detective McCready’s denials that he knew Mr. Steuerman, two witnesses said they had seen the men together. A restaurant owner said Detective McCready told him that a construction business he owned had done work for Mr. Steuerman.
There were also questions about District Attorney Spota, who as a private lawyer had represented Mr. McCready when he was investigated by a state commission that found he had lied in another murder case, and later when Mr. McCready was charged and acquitted of assault. Mr. Spota’s law partner had also represented Mr. Steuerman.
“The big question is what happens now,” said Bennett L. Gershman, a law professor at Pace University and a former prosecutor who has followed the case closely. “You have three people walking at liberty — Creedon, Steuerman and Kent — who are potential killers. Is Spota going to continue on the case? I don’t see how he can.”
Mr. Gershman praised the appellate ruling, saying: “Finally you have an objective, fair-minded view of this case, which has never happened before.”
||Truth in Justice