Editorial: Spota right to drop Tankleff charges

January 4, 2008

Perhaps the toughest thing for a district attorney to do is to decide not to prosecute - especially in a case as highly visible as Martin Tankleff's. But Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota, faced with mission impossible in trying him again, chose reluctantly but correctly not to go ahead.

In 1990, long before Spota became the district attorney, a jury found Tankleff guilty of killing his parents, Seymour and Arlene, in 1988. It relied heavily on Tankleff's unsigned and quickly repudiated confession and rejected the defense theory that the person responsible for the gory killings was Jerry Steuerman, a business associate of Seymour Tankleff's.

After a hearing on new evidence that Tankleff's defense had gathered since 2001, Suffolk County Court Judge Stephen Braslow rejected testimony implicating others, including Joseph Creedon, who had collected drug debts for Steuerman's son, Todd. On Dec. 18, the Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court criticized Braslow's decision, threw out the conviction, and ordered a new trial.

Spota could have tried to appeal the unanimous Appellate Division decision to the Court of Appeals in Albany. Those who remain sure that Tankleff indeed murdered his parents would argue that Spota should have done just that. But Spota determined his prospects of getting the appeal heard, and of succeeding, ranged from remote to nonexistent.

As to a new trial, Spota concluded for a variety of reasons - as simple as the passage of time and the fading of memory, and as complex as a change in case law since the original trial - that he could not possibly get a conviction.

So, once a judge grants Spota's motion to drop the indictment, Tankleff is totally free. Spota said he'll ask Gov. Eliot Spitzer to name a special prosecutor to look at the evidence about those named in the hearings. But that's not the only piece of unfinished business in this case.

The State Commission of Investigation is looking into Spota's handling of the new-evidence hearings. The same agency in 1989 criticized Suffolk police for coerced confessions. It's long past time for all police interrogations to be videotaped, as Tankleff's attorneys urged yesterday.

In short, this case is almost over for Tankleff himself, but its echoes will reverberate for years to come.