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Inside Wrongful Conviction Cases

by Scott Christianson

REVIEW - The New York Times (Op-Ed Page) - January 30, 2005

LONG ISLAND - After 14 Years, Another Crack at Justice
by Scott Christianson

FOURTEEN 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 to death.

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 authorities.

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."


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