The Martin Tankleff Story

 UPDATE 12/27: He’s free. Suffolk County notes it will prosecute again.

There was a time when law’n’order sold big. Those of us who argued for common sense would find ourselves face to face with screaming relatives.

Question the wisdom of the death penalty? “You just want to turn murderers loose on the streets!!!” Suggest that the legal system was not exactly as portrayed on, say, the Law and Order franchise? “You hate the very people who put their lives on the line for us!!!”

Then biologists made great advances in genetic analysis, and people began to be exonerated. The meme of wrongful convictions started to take hold, and people were exonerated for other reasons. The networks started covering exonerations. Outgoing Illinois Governor Ryan commuted death sentences and declared a moratorium.

And finally, New Jersey went and abolished the death penalty.

The system still has a ways to go. There can be something civilizing about the old Christian doctrine of Sin, when you realize it applies to everyone, criminal and cop and everyone in between.

Thus is this story a heartening and saddening —  at the same time — meditation on this doctrine.

A state appellate court overturned on Friday the convictions of a Long Island man who has been imprisoned for 17 years for the grisly 1988 murders of his parents.

The man, Martin H. Tankleff, was convicted in 1990, largely on an admission written by the police that he refused to sign and immediately repudiated. The case drew national attention; 31 former federal, state and local prosecutors supported his claim of innocence, as did Mr. Tankleff’s relatives.

The ruling, by the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court in Brooklyn, was not only a vindication for Mr. Tankleff, but it also raised questions about police and prosecutorial methods in Suffolk County.

“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,” four appellate justices — Reinaldo E. Rivera, Gabriel M. Krausman, Anita R. Florio and Mark C. Dillon — wrote in a unanimous, 21-page decision…

But it was not immediately clear when Mr. Tankleff, 17 at the time of the murders and now 36, would be released — or when a new trial might occur.

Mr. Tankleff’s supporters had contended that Suffolk County prosecutors withheld information that pointed to another man, Joseph Creedon, who Mr. Tankleff believes led the attacks on his parents, Arlene and Seymour Tankleff, who were bludgeoned and slashed in their waterfront home in Belle Terre on Sept. 7, 1988…

In 1994, the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, refused to grant Mr. Tankleff a new trial. His lawyers had argued that his confession should have been suppressed because the police did not inform him of his right to remain silent or to have a lawyer present early enough in the questioning.

New attention to the case came in October 2003, after an investigator working for the Tankleff defense, Jay Salpeter, working over several years, produced several pieces of new evidence implicating three other people…

The Tankleff defense said the three other people had acted at the behest of Seymour Tankleff’s embittered business partner, Jerard Steuerman, who owed the elder Mr. Tankleff $500,000. Mr. Steuerman was in the Tankleff home on the night of the attacks, but the police did not investigate him.

The new evidence included a man who said he was the getaway driver for the killers, and several witnesses who quoted the two other former convicts as privately admitting their involvement.

But in March 2006, a Suffolk County Court judge upheld Martin Tankleff’s conviction, rejecting the new evidence as lacking credibility.

Mr. Tankleff’s lawyers appealed that ruling in January of this year, claiming factual and legal mistakes.

In the ruling issued on Friday, the four-judge panel of the Appellate Division sharply criticized the lower court’s refusal to consider the new evidence.

“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 the trial, the verdict would have been more favorable to the defendant,” the appellate decision states, adding, “The County Court in effect applied a blanket disqualification for all of the defendant’s proffered evidence.”

In fact, the appellate court found, “At this juncture there is no basis to conclude that all of the subject evidence is inadmissible.”

The appellate court also rejected prosecutors’ argument that new witnesses had come forward only because of the intense publicity around the case. “The claim that intense media coverage somehow played a role in this case and the implication that this prompted individuals to testify falsely is sheer conjecture and speculation,” the judges wrote.

The New York Times has a compilation of much more detail.

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One response to “The Martin Tankleff Story

  1. Mrs. Mary White

    I just finished watching this story again. January 26, 2008. This poor man has lost 17 years of his life and will never get it back. I can not believe how many innocent people stay in jail for the length of time they do and it takes so long for the justice system to turn cases around. I have a son imprisioned since last year on a murder charge. He received life without parole. He is waiting for the opinion to come down from the appeals court as I sit to write this. They found no weapon, physical or biological proof to connect him to the murder. At the trial only words from jail house snitches that disliked him and the sister of another person who went on trial for the same murder. I cry for my son and all like him; who get caught up in the ravages of “lets get somebody, anybody” instead of looking hard for the real people.

    Any publicity as to the “their innocence and freedom from the guilt” can never wipe out the negativity of the arrest, trial and mistakes made.

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