- The New York Times (Op-Ed Page) - January 30, 2005
LONG ISLAND - After 14 Years, Another Crack at Justice
years after one of the most controversial double-murder convictions in Long
Island history, the Martin Tankleff case threatens to further tarnish Suffolk
County's justice system.
Hearings on Mr. Tankleff's effort to overturn his convictions
in the murder of his parents, Arlene and Seymour Tankleff, have
been going on in Riverhead since July 19. Both sides are expected
to complete their arguments when the proceedings resume this week.
After weighing the briefs, Judge Stephen L. Braslow of Suffolk
County Court will then have to decide whether to reject Mr. Tankleff's
arguments, reverse the conviction and order a new trial, or cut
loose the wrongfully convicted man.
Either way, because of the questions raised at the hearings,
the case is bound to continue reverberating.
Close observers, however, agree that Judge Braslow will be hard-pressed
to find convincing grounds upon which to deny Mr. Tankleff's motion
for a new trial. Mr. Tankleff's newly discovered evidence has been
far more extensive than what county prosecutors used in 1990 to
gain his conviction and sentence of 50 years to life.
But here's the question: Given all the new evidence that's been
uncovered, why hasn't the prosecutor moved in the interests of
justice to reverse the conviction and convene a new grand jury?
It started with a 911 call. On the morning of Sept. 7, 1988,
the Suffolk police responded to a frantic emergency call from an
upscale house in Belle Terre, on Long Island's North Shore. They
arrived to find the caller, 17-year-old Martin Tankleff, dazed
after waking up and finding his adoptive parents covered with blood.
Bludgeoned and nearly decapitated, Arlene Tankleff was already
dead. Her horribly wounded husband, Seymour Tankleff, was in a
coma and would die a few weeks later.
Mr. Tankleff, a slightly built youth, had no criminal history
or record of mental illness. He claimed that his father's estranged
business partner, Jerard Steuerman, who described himself as Long
Island's bagel baron, owed the Tankleffs hundreds of thousands
of dollars and had been the last one to leave a high-stakes card
game at the house earlier that morning.
Suffolk County detectives took the youth in for questioning.
When he didn't confess, one of the detectives, K. James McCready,
pretended to receive a telephone call telling him that Seymour
Tankleff had revived under adrenaline to blame his son for the
attack. Shortly afterward, the younger Mr. Tankleff broke down
under the pressure and confessed.
There was no taped or signed confession. Martin Tankleff quickly
recanted his statement and proclaimed his innocence. But the authorities
wouldn't let go.
Mr. Tankleff's lawyer at the time pointed out that Suffolk County
law enforcement was under federal and state investigation for corruption
and other misconduct. The State Investigation Commission was targeting
prosecutors and police for botching major cases by, among other
things, coercing false confessions and engaging in cover-ups. The
commission's 1989 report also said that Mr. McCready had committed
perjury in an earlier homicide case (which he denied). But the
trial judge kept these facts out of the trial.
Mr. Steuerman, the business partner, faked his own death after
the attacks, fled to California and assumed a false identity. But
the police never considered him a suspect. Mr. Tankleff was convicted
and sent to prison for the rest of his life. Had a capital punishment
law been on the books at the time, he could have been condemned
The case might have ended there, except that Mr. Tankleff attracted
some top-flight legal assistance and fought to prove his innocence.
He appealed to the State Court of Appeals and even to the United
States Supreme Court but didn't prevail. The case languished. Mr.
Tankleff started losing his hair; his youth was gone.
Then a miracle happened. Jay Salpeter, a retired New York police
homicide detective, was hired by Mr. Tankleff's lawyers to investigate
the case. Mr. Salpeter obtained a written statement from a career
criminal, Glenn Harris, that he had driven his longtime crime partner,
Joseph Creedon, and an acquaintance Peter Kent to the Tankleff
house that night. Mr. Salpeter also discovered that another witness
had already come forward to say that Mr. Creedon had said he was
involved in the Tankleff murders. This witness, along with Mr.
Tankleff and Mr. Harris, passed polygraph examinations, and others
substantiated their accounts.
Mr. Tankleff's lawyers shared this new information with the Suffolk
County district attorney, Thomas J. Spota. When Mr. Spota did not
investigate, they filed a motion seeking an evidentiary hearing
in county court.
When Judge Braslow began to hear evidence in open court, it seemed
that there would be a quick end to the matter. But the district
attorney refused to grant Mr. Harris, the getaway driver, any immunity
from prosecution for his testimony. As a result, Mr. Harris declined
to testify. The judge also refused to grant immunity and even forbade
Mr. Tankleff's lawyer Bruce A. Barket to speak with Mr. Harris.
But instead of simply hinging its case upon Mr. Harris's testimony,
the Tankleff defense team has unleashed a cascade of new evidence,
none of it effectively rebutted or discredited by the prosecution.
Testimony from several witnesses has filled in more details about
the alleged murder plot and suggested a cover-up by the Suffolk
Mr. Creedon, Mr. Harris and Mr. Kent have denied carrying out
the Tankleff murders.
Witnesses and court records have established that Mr. Steuerman's
son, Todd, was associated with Mr. Creedon in drug trafficking.
Mr. Creedon has given sworn statements that Todd Steuerman shot
him after he refused to cut out Martin Tankleff's tongue for Jerard
Steuerman. Several witnesses have testified that the Steuermans'
bagel store was used for drug dealing. Todd Steuerman was arrested
and went to prison as a result of some of this activity, but his
criminal background was kept out of the original Tankleff trial.
Some of the most potent evidence presented has involved Mr. Spota
himself. Before he was elected district attorney as a Democrat
in 2001, Mr. Spota represented Mr. McCready, the detective who
obtained the Tankleff confession, both when he faced criminal charges
and when he was under state investigation for perjury. In the 1980's,
Mr. Spota also represented some police officers who were convicted
of drug offenses. After the latest hearings started, Mr. Spota
belatedly disclosed that his law firm had defended Todd Steuerman
when he was charged with dealing drugs out of his father's bagel
store. Yet Mr. Spota has repeatedly refused to recuse himself in
the case or to yield to a special prosecutor.
It's true that when someone tries to get his conviction reversed,
the burden is on the accused, not the prosecutor, to prove his
case. Nor is Mr. Spota under a legal obligation to help Mr. Tankleff
get a new trial. But trying to stonewall Mr. Tankleff's fight for
justice is no way to get at the truth. And no matter what Judge
Braslow decides about the future of Martin Tankleff, the questions
that have been raised about police interrogation practices and
Mr. Spota's ties to people involved in this case won't go away.
Scott Christianson, a former executive
assistant to the New York State director of criminal justice,
is the author of "Innocent:
Inside Wrongful Conviction Cases."