Probe of Spota's handling of Tankleff intensifies


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December 30, 2007

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's chairman said yesterday.

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, said Alfred Lerner, chairman of the commission.

The evidence offered by those witnesses was rejected by prosecutors and a County Court judge, but the Appellate Division deemed it sufficient to sway a jury and on Dec. 21 ordered a new trial for Tankleff.

"We're going to look at the whole thing," Lerner said, adding that the commission began a preliminary investigation about a year ago after receiving a complaint and has "intensified" its examination since Tankleff's conviction was overturned. He said he could not reveal who made the initial complaint.

Robert Clifford, a spokesman for Spota, said the district attorney's office has not been contacted by the commission but will "fully cooperate" if asked.

Lerner said the commission plans to issue a report "in the next five to six months."

"We have much more to do on this case," he said. The state's inquiry is led by Joseph Kunzeman, a former judge and Nassau County attorney.

Expansion of the probe marks another milestone for Tankleff, 36, who was released from jail last week after more than 17 years in prison. Tankleff has maintained his innocence and his defense team has accused Suffolk police and prosecutors of ignoring and suppressing evidence.

Tankleff, who was 17 when his parents were killed in the family's Belle Terre home in 1988, confessed to the killing under questioning from Suffolk police Det. K. James McCready. Tankleff the next day recanted the admission, refused to sign police statements and instead accused Jerard Steuerman, a business associate of his father's.

Though Steuerman owed Seymour Tankleff more than $500,000, prosecutors and detectives never seriously considered him a suspect. The prosecution's case rested largely on the recanted confession, conflicting statements made by Tankleff and blood found on his body.

The probe also 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 McCready. Spota's former law partners also represented Steuerman's family.

Spota has said his representation of McCready is not a conflict of interest. In response to a motion by Tankleff's lawyers, Judge Stephen Braslow ruled that Spota did not have to recuse himself.

Jay Salpeter, a private investigator for Tankleff's defense team, said he has met with commission investigators and they left him with the impression that the probe was focused on allegations that Spota's office "tampered" with defense witnesses during and after 2004 and 2005 hearings on the Tankleff case.

Clifford said Salpeter's allegations had been investigated and dismissed. "We're confident the commission's investigators will find these allegations to be baseless," he said.

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