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January 2, 2008
Even if Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota should decide on his own not to seek a new trial of Martin Tankleff, it's clear that it will take a special prosecutor to make a decision about what to do next.
On Dec. 18, the Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court vacated Tankleff's 1990 conviction for killing his parents, Seymour and Arlene, in their Belle Terre home in 1988. The judges sent the case back to Suffolk for a new trial.
Now Spota confronts steep odds against a conviction, after the passage of two decades and a months-long hearing on new defense evidence unearthed since 2001. Though Spota deserves some credit for consenting to the new evidence hearing, he also faces an unfolding probe by the State Commission of Investigation into his office's handling of the witnesses.
At trial, the defense argued that Seymour Tankleff's business associate Jerry Steuerman had been responsible for the murders. The jury did not buy that, but instead believed an unsigned confession by Martin Tankleff, which he had repudiated almost immediately.
At the hearings on new evidence, the defense presented a parade of witnesses pointing to Joseph Creedon, who had business connections with Steuerman's family, as the leader of the real killers. Suffolk County Court Judge Stephen Braslow presided at the hearings, then rejected that evidence last year. But a panel of the Appellate Division in Brooklyn unanimously chided him for not making a critical analysis of the evidence, but simply excluding it mechanically.
Spota could appeal to the Court of Appeals in Albany, but his chances are slim. He could close the books on Tankleff by asking a court to dismiss the indictment. But even if he does, the question remains: If Appellate Division judges saw the evidence of another killer or killers as persuasive enough to warrant a new trial for Tankleff, shouldn't someone decide whether to investigate Creedon and others?
That's not a job for Spota, who as a private lawyer once represented a key detective in the case. During the evidence hearings, this page urged Braslow to appoint a special prosecutor. He didn't. Now only an independent special prosecutor, perhaps best named by Gov. Eliot Spitzer, can examine the evidence and decide whether to bring charges against someone else for the deaths of the Tankleffs.