Tankleff Conviction Overturned; Then Prosecution Drops All Charges
By Jeffrey Deskovic
Marty Tankleff was convicted of murdering his adoptive parents, Arlene and Seymour Tankleff and was sentenced to 50 Years To Life, based upon a confession that he was tricked into making, and which he immediately recanted. Marty woke up to find that his mother was dead, and his father unconscious. They had both been stabbed and bludgeoned. He immediately called 911 and gave first aid to his father.
When the police arrived, Marty tells the police that he suspected his father’s business partner Jerry Steuerman, who owed his father more than half a million dollars, had recently violently threatened them, and was the last guest to leave the house the night before the murders.
Instead of investigating this possibility, Detective McCreedy of the Suffolk County Police Department, focused on Marty as a suspect and began a hostile interrogation which lasted for 6 hours. In the course of that session, McCreedy tricked Tankleff with three lies: that a humidity test was performed in the shower, thus showing that Marty had washed blood off of himself (in fact, there is no such test); that Marty’s hair had been found in his mothers hand (it hadn’t); and that his father regained consciousness and identified him as the murderer.
Having been brought up to trust the word of his father, and to trust the police, Marty was led to wonder if he could have blacked out and confessed. That confession was immediately recanted by Tankleff. The knife that was mentioned in the confession as being the murder weapon did not have any blood on it, but merely watermelon juice. A week after the attacks, Steuerman faked his own death, disguised
himself, and fled to California under an alias.
The shadow of corruption and con-flicts of interest have hovered over this case in that, at the time of the Tankleff murders, Suffolk County law enforcement was under investigation for corruption, including problems with coerced confessions, by the State Investigation Commission
(SIC) on the order of Governor Mario Cuomo. The SIC’s scathing report included a finding that the detective who interrogated Marty had perjured himself in a previous murder case. Current Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota represented that detective in those hearings, as well as Steuerman’s son on charges of selling cocaine. Spota’s law partner had previously represented Steuerman.
Among the new evidence revealed at the hearing was eyewitness testimony that the business partner had been well acquainted with the lead detective since before the Tankleff murders. This contradicted the trial testimony of the detective, who had been off-duty on the morning of
the Tankleff murders but arrived only 19 minutes after the early morning call, and who ignored the business partner as a suspect. Marty,
who has been incarcerated for the past 18 years, and has protested his innocence while fighting against his conviction the entire time.
A retired NY Detective, Jay Salpeter, working pro bono, uncovered approximately two dozen witnesses who came forward and said
that the man who carried out the murder had admitted it, including the getaway driver. A pipe was located at the place that the driver admitted that it would be found. That evidence, uncovered over the years, was the basis of a motion for a new trial, which was denied in 2006. That denial was appealed to the Appellate Division. Marty argued that the new evidence proved that he was innocent and that the case should therefore be dismissed. He also argued that at the very least he was entitled to a new trial. Assistant District Attorney Lenny Lato opposed the appeal on several grounds: That none of the witness’s were credible, referring to them as “nefarious scoundrels”; Furthermore he argued that the Court should not even look at Marty’s innocence argument on procedural grounds; that the Court did not have legal authority to do so; and that Marty had unreasonably delayed bringing the motion by waiting until all of the evidence was
accumulated rather than bringing it to the Court piecemeal.
Many organizations filed briefs in support of Tankleff, including 31 Former Prosecutors and U.S. Attorneys; The Innocence Project; The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers; False confession Exonerees Gary Gauger, Peter Reilly, Beverly Monroe, and Michael Crowe; The Innocence Network (made up of over 30 innocence project type organizations); and over 50 Former Classmates of Marty Tankleff. The Appellate Division pointed out that the Prosecution used such witnesses all of the time, and that many of the witnesses
had no connection to each other.
Their ruling was that although Marty had not met the standard for proving actual innocence, he had nonetheless accumulated enough evidence
that if it were presented to a new jury he would likely be acquitted. “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 court wrote. They therefore reversed his conviction and sent his case back to the lower court.
On Thursday, December 27, I left Westchester around 7:00 a.m., accompanied by a photographer, to cover Marty Tankleff’s bail hearing at the Suffolk County Courthouse in Riverhead, Long Island, on behalf of The Westchester Guardian newspaper. The courthouse was packed, as Marty’s family members, friends, supporters, and a huge media contingent all turned out in force. Anticipation ran high as everyone awaited his arrival in the courtroom. Previous public statements by the Prosecutor’s Office indicated that the People would be consenting to bail, and that they would speak with Defense lawyers to reach an agreement on an appropriate amount prior to the hearing. It was expected that the judge would concur with that agreement and that Marty would be released.
Tankleff entered the courtroom in handcuffs. Nonetheless, he had a smile on his face. The bail that was set seemed shockingly high to most present; one million dollars. However, the Defense was ready, and a bail bondsman stepped forward and said that he would issue the bond.
When the Judge signaled his acceptance, a light applause broke out in the courtroom, as the last vestige of doubt that he would be freed vanished. Then, just as the Judge was standing to leave, Assistant District Attorney Lenny Lato, with an unforgettable look on his face thundered, “The people are ready to go to trial, your Honor”, as if to take the moment away from Tankleff and his supporters.
The Judge had a stunned look on his face, and sitting back down, he asked if the defense had any statements to make on behalf of the
Defendant. They declined. CBS, NBC, ABC, Channel 11, News 12 and a variety of other television stations were on hand for the press conference that followed, as was The Daily News, New York Times, The Post, as well as The Westchester Guardian. The conference itself was held inside the courthouse on the same floor as the bail hearing. Joining Tankleff at the podium were several members of his family, absent his sister, Jay Salpeter, the retired New York City Police detective whose pro bono investigation turned up the new evidence; Rick
Freedman who set up a website for Marty; Lonnie Soury, whose public relations firm had helped garner media attention for Tankleff,
and a few selected friends.
Tankleff’s Aunt, Marianne McClure said “I was as upset when Marty was convicted as I was when I learned my sister was murdered. Now we can mourn my sister properly, because we have not been able to for 19 years.” She praised her nephew for his pro active approach in trying to undue his conviction, and for not giving up. She expressed frustration at how difficult it was to undue a wrongful conviction.
Ron Falbee, Tankleff’s cousin, continued that theme, declaring, “This whole case has been one disappointment after another. There’s a lingering anger that an innocent man spent 19 years of his life behind bars. I find that unacceptable.”
One of Tankleff’s attorneys stepped to the microphone, indicating that Marty would read a statement and that he would not be answering any questions afterward because of the possibility of a retrial. Tankleff, smiling and obviously relieved, read the following, carefully-worded statement:
“It’s great to see all of you here today. If my arrest and conviction was a nightmare, this is a dream come true. I want to thank everyone
who made this possible; Jay Salpeter, for reading a letter I sent him one day, and then taking it upon himself to go out and solve this case; my entire, incredible legal team; the people who have been getting the truth about my case out through the media and the website; the witnesses who have come forward just because it was the right thing to do; the Appellate Judges whose ruling demonstrates they did a thorough review of the case record and acted accordingly; all my friends and supporters, in Suffolk County and across the nation, and literally around the world, for your interest and for making my fight your fight; most of all my family, who have stood by me from Day One right up to this moment.
Remember that while I am innocent, I am still accused by the Suffolk County District Attorney of the murder of my parents, and I am awaiting a possible re-trial. I do hope that I can continue to count on everyone’s support as I defend myself once again.
I always had faith this day would come. I look forward to welcoming in the new year with my family. Happy New Year!” He then stepped away from the podium, leaving his attorneys to answer questions. The possibility of another trial hung in the air, as Tankleff answered no questions, and his attorneys said little in terms of legal questions, or even human interest questions, such as what he would do first, and what he would eat.
When asked directly if there would be a new trial, Attorneys Pollack and Barket stated that they hoped that the Suffolk County District Attorney would weigh the new evidence, investigate, and decide not to pursue another trial, but that would be up to him.
The extra judicial attention that this case received while at the Appellate level was as much a factor as anything that was argued in court, ranging from all of the Friend Of The Court Briefs, to the media and public spotlight that was put on the case. Those factors led to the environment in which the Court reviewed the issues, thereby coming to an objective review and judicial decision, as opposed to previous decisions by other courts, that were more of the rubber stamp denial variety, often issued against defendants regardless of the merits of their case.
Five days following the bail hearing, District Attorney Spota announced that he was dropping the charges against Marty Tankleff and that he would call upon Governor Eliot Spitzer to appoint a special prosecutor to look into whether charges should be filed against other people. Some observers believe that Spota’s decision to drop the charges against Tankleff were influenced by the SIC investigation into how he handled the case, and mounting public pressure encouraging the Governor to step in, take the case from him, and appoint a special prosecutor to decide whether 1) the case should go forward against him, and 2) whether charges should be brought forward against Steuerman and the others. ADA Lato’s in-court statement was cited as proof of that.
There has been an SIC Investigation ordered by Gov. Spitzer into corruption in Suffolk County with respect to the Tankleff case. The SIC is a “sunshine agency” with no direct enforcement powers. However, it can refer evidence of crimes to the authorities or propose a special prosecutor as a means to reopen the case and pursue other suspects.
The investigation had been going on for a year, but under low profile, so as not interefere with Tankleff’s appeal. Chairman Alfred Lerner stated, “The State Commission of Investigation is ratcheting up a probe into whether Suffolk County authorities, including District Attorney Thomas Spota, mishandled the Martin Tankleff case. The commission will issue subpoenas in the next few weeks as investigators take a ‘broad look’ at the Suffolk police investigation that led to Tankleff’s 1990 conviction for killing his parents, Seymour and Arlene Tankleff, and how Spota’s Office dealt with the surfacing of new witnesses in 2003 who supported Tankleff’s claims of innocence.
Commissioner Lerner further stated that Joseph Kunzeman, a former judge and Nassau County attorney, would be spearheading the investigation. “We’re going to look at the whole thing.” Lerner said the commission would issue a report in the next five to six months. He then declared, “The probe will ‘scrutinize the actions of Spota, who wasn’t District Attorney for Tankleff’s prosecution and trial but came under fire for not recusing himself when Tankleff sought a new trial in 2003. Both as a private attorney and as a lawyer for the police union,
Spota represented Mc-Creedy. Spota’s former law partners also represented Steuerman’s family.