Tankleff not off the hook, yet


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10:54 PM EST, January 12, 2008

Martin Tankleff's hopes of having the murder indictment against him dismissed on Friday are likely on hold with yesterday's decision by Gov. Eliot Spitzer to name the state attorney general to re-examine the case.

The timing of the appointment pre-empts Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota -- who had asked for a special prosecutor along with Tankleff's defense lawyers and others. He had planned to end the local prosecution of the case in a court appearance Friday.

Now, the man who spent 17 years of a 50-years-to-life sentence for the 1988 killings of his parents in their Belle Terre home before being freed on appeal Dec. 20, may have to wait a bit longer.

"I understand the human dynamic here," said state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. "I understand that Martin Tankleff has been in prison for 17 years and he wants certainty and closure."

"We couldn't do it justice by reviewing it in one week," said Cuomo, adding that his prosecutors would be "preserving all our options" when reviewing evidence.

Cuomo said that he replaces Spota as the prosecutor on the case. As for the possibility of dismissing charges against Tankleff, Cuomo said: "We're not making any determinations until we review all the evidence."

While welcoming a special prosecutor, Tankleff's attorneys were unsettled by the possibility of more delays.

"Mr. Spota himself has come to the conclusion that the case against Marty ought to be dismissed," said Barry Pollack, a Washington, D.C.-based defense attorney. "There's no reason to believe that an objective special prosecutor would come to any other conclusion."

Investigation of Spota asked

Spota had asked that a special prosecutor look into new evidence presented by the defense, while Tankleff's lawyers have asked additionally that Spota's conduct on the case be investigated.

The State Commission of Investigation, which has a broad mandate to look into the conduct of public officials, is also looking into the case and yesterday, the chairman, Judge Alfred Lerner, said the probe would continue despite the appointment.

"That won't deter us. We have a lot of information which can help them," said Lerner.

In an interview yesterday, Cuomo said he would strike a balance between Tankleff's desire for a speedy resolution, and the prosecution's need to thoroughly review all evidence.

"We'll obviously do it as quickly as possible," he said. "It's in everyone's interest to find the truth in this matter."

Nevertheless, the timing of the governor's appointment of Cuomo appears to delay when Tankleff, 36, will know whether he will face retrial.

In a statement released Saturday morning, Spitzer said the appointment authorized Cuomo to "consider all of the evidence gathered so far and to conduct his own investigation."

Cooperation pledged

Spota said in a statement that he supported the appointment and "If called upon, we will cooperate fully and completely with the attorney general." He also cited a similar request for a special prosecutor from Shari Mistretta, Tankleff's half-sister, who has said publicly that she believes Tankleff committed the murders.

Errol Cockfield, a Spitzer spokesman, said the governor responded to the call of Spota and others for a special prosecutor. As for the governor's timing of the announcement, Cockfield said, "There was no reason to delay."

Pollack said defense attorneys hope to meet with Cuomo's representatives before the next scheduled court hearing to find a way "to come to an agreement on the most efficient way to bring the case to an immediate conclusion."

Robert Clifford, a spokesman for Spota, said the district attorney's office received an executive order from Spitzer's office announcing Cuomo's appointment.

Cuomo rep to step in

The hearing scheduled in Suffolk County Court for Friday at which Spota was going to seek dismissal of the charges remains in the court calender, Clifford said. But instead, a representative of the attorney general's office will be in court representing the people, Clifford said.

Over the years, Tankleff has filed several unsuccessful appeals. But in July 2004 he was allowed to present new evidence in Suffolk County Court during a hearing designed to determine whether a jury would render a different verdict if it had heard new evidence that Tankleff's attorneys and private investigator had gathered.

Judge Stephen L. Braslow presided over the hearing, which lasted for several months, but in March 2006, he ruled that the new evidence would not sway a jury to a different verdict.

In April 2006, Tankleff's attorneys appealed that ruling before the state appellate division, which ruled last month that Tankleff deserved a new trial.

Tankleff was released form prison on $1 million bail on Dec. 27. On Jan 2, Spota said his office would have no more involvement with the case, and that he would formally drop charges on Jan. 18 while calling on Spitzer to appoint a special prosecutor to look into the case.

Staff writers Zachary R. Dowdy and Emerson Clarridge contributed to this story.