January 3, 2008
Long Island Man Won’t Be Tried Again in Murders
By PAUL VITELLO and BRUCE LAMBERT
HAUPPAUGE, N.Y. — The Suffolk County district attorney said on Wednesday that he would not retry Martin H. Tankleff for the 1988 murders of his parents and that he would ask Gov. Eliot Spitzer to appoint a special prosecutor to reinvestigate the case.
A spokesman for the governor said Mr. Spitzer would wait for the formal request before considering it.
James McCready, the Suffolk detective who led the interrogation, said during the trial that such tactics were not uncommon because all criminal suspects have one trait in common: “They all lie.”
The private investigation that led to Mr. Tankleff’s freedom began when a former New York City detective, Jay Salpeter, received a letter from Mr. Tankleff in 2001, asking him to review the case. From the beginning, Mr. Tankleff and his family — a sister, several cousins, and aunts and uncles who supported his claim of innocence — asserted that the killings were carried out on orders from Jerard Steuerman, a business partner of Seymour Tankleff.
Mr. Steuerman, who lives in Florida, attended a regular poker game at the Tankleffs’ house the night before the murders and was, by the accounts of those who were there that night, the last to leave.
Mr. Steuerman owed more than $500,000 to the elder Mr. Tankleff and had quarreled with him over the terms of repayment, according to evidence presented at Martin Tankleff’s trial. But the police said that they had eliminated Mr. Steuerman as a suspect based on interviews and on an alibi, despite the fact that he fled a few days after the murders. He was tracked down by the police, who wanted him as a witness, in California, where he was living under an assumed name.
Mr. Salpeter unspooled a thread of connections that led from Mr. Steuerman to one of his associates, Joseph Creedon, then to a half dozen witnesses who gave sworn depositions that Mr. Creedon had told them that he and another man had killed the Tankleffs.
Suffolk County Court Judge Stephen Braslow heard the new evidence during episodic hearings in which Mr. Tankleff’s lawyers sought a new trial. But the judge dismissed the new witnesses as “a cavalcade of nefarious characters.”
The appellate court, in reversing Judge Braslow, noted that many of the witnesses did not know each other, yet they all 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, concluding, “This evidence warrants a new trial.”
In conceding that prosecutors would probably not win a conviction against Mr. Tankleff, Mr. Spota seemed to take issue with the Appellate Division’s opinion by insisting that the real impediment was not new evidence pointing to someone else, but the new restrictions against certain types of prosecution.
In particular, a 2004 appellate decision bars prosecutors from bringing multiple murder charges in the same case, as was done in the Tankleff trial. Jurors were asked to consider charges of intentional murder and “depraved indifference” murder, a category that carries the same penalty as intentional murder but for which the burden of proof is somewhat less. In his mother’s murder, Mr. Tankleff was acquitted of intentional murder and convicted of depraved indifference murder. In the murder of his father, the jury found him guilty of intentional murder.
Because he was acquitted of the intentional murder of his mother, protections against double jeopardy would prevent prosecutors from bringing that charge against him again in the death of Mrs. Tankleff, Mr. Spota said.
And since “the evidence clearly shows that both victims were intentionally murdered,” Mr. Spota said, Mr. Tankleff could not be charged in his mother’s death.
“I believe that attempting to retry half of the case against Tankleff is futile, and I will not do it,” Mr. Spota said
Mr. Tankleff seemed a little stunned as he absorbed the fact that he was free. “I lost 18 years of my life,” he said.