- < 01.04.08, Newsday Editorial: Spota right to drop Tankleff charges
- 01.04.08, NY Daily News: Martin Tankleff hugs Karlene Kovacs, the stranger who told of confession >
January 4, 2008
The New York Times
The System Worked? A Defender Begs to Differ
By ROBIN FINN
GARDEN CITY, N.Y.
BRUCE A. BARKET, a voluntarily overworked criminal defense lawyer whose under-eye circles rival those of any raccoon, cast a wishful glance toward the box of Montecristo cigars nestled among the family photos and professional citations on his office credenza. The perfect holiday gift, as-yet unopened. A lot like the long-awaited release of his client Martin H. Tankleff, who was hoping to learn on Wednesday that he would not be retried for his parents’ murders: almost the perfect ending.
“What we are left with is a brutal double homicide that is essentially unsolved and really was never properly investigated,” said Mr. Barket, one of several lawyers who represented Mr. Tankleff in his appeals. “People will say, ‘Look, the system worked for Marty!’ I say, bull: He was in prison for 17 ½ years.”
Mr. Barket, 48, wanted a Montecristo badly enough to break the law and smoke indoors, something he confesses to doing at times when working here alone on weekends.
But this was Wednesday, and he was far from alone in Suite 600 in the glass high-rise at 666 Old Country Road. Mr. Barket, a devout Christian, loves it that some people, especially clients from the religious right — he represented James C. Kopp, the anti-abortion activist who killed Dr. Barnett Slepian in 1998 — find his office address off-putting. He is quirky in that way and others.
“I am a pro-life, pro-immigration, anti-gun control, registered Conservative who has spent his career defending people other people think are murderers, so who is going to elect me to any public office?” he said of his uphill struggle to change public policy in the criminal justice system, which he deems overly politicized and fatally flawed.
So since 1997 he has done his work — Mr. Barket is the lawyer responsible for the early parole of Amy Fisher, the teenager who served seven years for shooting her lover’s wife — from this private law office. Sometimes he works for pay, sometimes for principle. “My philosophy is everyone deserves a second chance,” he said. “Defending indigent murderers is my stock in trade.”
He gestured toward a stack of envelopes on his windowsill, all from inmates who, noticing the zeal he had put into Mr. Tankleff’s appeal, want him to mastermind theirs. Mr. Tankleff’s original letter requesting help arrived eight years ago.
On Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Barket had a more visible case of agita than his high-profile client, Mr. Tankleff, who had been freed in the wake of last month’s appellate court decision to vacate his 1990 convictions for killing his parents, Seymour and Arlene. The office vestibule was swarming with reporters and cameras. Vindication for six years of sleuthing and case reconstruction, all of it done free, was imminent. Or perhaps not, if the prosecution chose to go forward with a retrial to begin on Jan. 18.
HE was on tenterhooks and, unlike Mr. Tankleff, who was calmly ensconced at a computer and acting as his own paralegal in an improvised office just down the hall, he needed a smoke. Or a diversion. Mr. Barket, a onetime aspirant for the Jesuit priesthood and an acolyte of the New Testament, especially the acts of inclusion and forgiveness attributed to Jesus, recognizes temptation when it strikes. Rather than reaching for a soothing stogie, he did the opposite: He reached out to hush his yammering phones.
“Unless it’s the Suffolk district attorney, hold my calls,” he barked at his assistant. He then muttered that he did not actually expect a courtesy call from the district attorney, Thomas J. Spota. He said the first time he predicted he would have Mr. Tankleff home for Christmas, the prosecutor in charge of the case quipped, “You’ll have him home for Christmas all right, Christmas 2040.”
What Mr. Barket, himself a former prosecutor in Nassau County, did expect Mr. Spota to do was announce, late Wednesday afternoon, that he was dropping the Tankleff case. Justice delayed, Mr. Barket mused later, was better than no justice at all.
But he had harsh words for the prosecutorial team that sent Mr. Tankleff to prison based on a confession obtained through trickery — Mr. Tankleff was told by police interrogators that his father had awoken from a coma and implicated him as the killer. The prosecution refused to investigate the possibility that the killings were ordered by a disgruntled business associate of Seymour Tankleff’s.
“It’s something the district attorney should have done four years ago,” Mr. Barket said. “I gave him 12 witnesses who said somebody else did the murders, but Suffolk had no good finger on the pulse of this case.
“It’s been almost like an article of faith for them to maintain, against all logic and reason, that Marty Tankleff killed his parents. But we don’t try our criminal cases on faith; we try them on the facts. I hope this is an eye-opening case. I hope jurors recognize that when they hear a ‘confession,’ they should not jump to the conclusion it was true.”
Mr. Barket, who lives in Manhasset with his wife and toddler daughter, grew up in Middletown, Conn. He decided as a teenager that he wanted to become a lawyer despite his poor study habits, mild dyslexia and a high school counselor who suggested he should aim lower: courtroom stenographer. He and his mother were the first in the family to graduate from college, both in 1982.
He received a law degree from the University of Connecticut and got a job in Nassau County as an assistant district attorney, but left in 1991 for a seminary in Syracuse, where he also volunteered as an advocate for indigent inmates at the county jail. The priesthood didn’t stick; ministering to accused criminals did.
“Same flock, different venue,” he said of returning to the courtroom as a defense lawyer.