Daily News Editorial 

Find Tankleff killers

Friday, January 4th 2008, 4:00 AM

Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota has washed his hands of investigating the murders of Seymour and Arlene Tankleff, who were beaten and stabbed in their Long Island home in 1988. And well Spota should.

Although a DA has no higher duty than to pursue justice for the taking of lives, Spota could not credibly preside over a probe into the killings. Thankfully, he asked Gov. Spitzer to appoint a special prosecutor.

The governor must oblige by deputizing a respected law-enforcement professional. There is no other way to remedy Spota's abdication of responsibility. Two people were slain. The case must remain open.

At the same time, the State Investigation Commission must follow through on its intention to examine Spota's handling of the Tankleff case with full vigor. The complete record must be laid before the public.

As is well known, the Tankleffs' son Martin was found guilty in 1990 of killing his parents in their Belle Terre home when he was 17. He was found guilty largely on the basis of a partial confession he never signed and immediately recanted. (Spota was not district attorney at the time.)

Over the course of 17 years in prison, Tankleff maintained innocence. Eventually, he connected with a private eye who got sworn statements that implicated a thuggish trio in killing the couple while Tankleff slept.

The purported motive was a $500,000 debt owed to Seymour Tankleff by former partner Jerry Steuerman. Steuerman was in the Tankleff house the night of the murders. Shortly afterward, he faked suicide and fled to California under a false name. Steuerman claims innocence.

Spota rejected the new sworn statements as having no evidentiary value. One judge agreed, but an appeals court unanimously concluded that the "evidence warrants a new trial."

As should have been plain to Spota. It wasn't a close question. Tankleff was not a con attempting to beat a rap on technicalities. He was a man serving a life sentence who surely would not have been convicted had his jury gotten the full story - a man many are certain was never a killer.

In walking away from the case, Spota far too belatedly acknowledges that he cannot prove Tankleff's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. But he went out of his way to dismiss the new theories as to who actually committed the murders as "just not supported by the credible evidence."

That's a judgment that demands serious review by a special prosecutor. At this point, coming from Spota, it has limited weight. And its value appears all the smaller when you factor in two entanglements.

Before becoming DA, Spota represented the chief detective on the case, James McCready, in matters including an SIC probe that found McCready had perjured himself at an unrelated trial. And Spota's law partner had been an attorney for Steuerman.

Why didn't the DA step aside to avoid even an appearance of a conflict of interest when the matter first arose? Was Spota's judgment clouded by true conflicts? Those are among the questions that cry out to be answered by the state commission.