BY ZACHARY R. DOWDY
January 13, 2008
When Gov. Eliot Spitzer yesterday tapped state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo to take over Martin Tankleff's case, he not only elevated its profile but also responded to a call from both sides - but for different reasons.
Still, legal experts said that while the appointment could delay the prosecution's scheduled request Friday to dismiss charges against Tankleff, they still believe the charges will be dropped.
"There's going to have to be some dialogue between Cuomo and Spota because now you've got the prosecutor saying he wants to dismiss the charges and my guess is Cuomo is certainly not going to strongly object," said Bennett Gershman, a professor at Pace Law School who has followed the case.
And it means that new evidence brought by the defense, pointing the finger at others, will be looked into by the state's highest law enforcement authority.
"The whole reason for a special prosecutor is to take a fresh look at the case and see if there is a basis for seeing whether other people were involved," said Gershman.
Richard Klein, professor at Touro Law School, said plans will likely proceed as scheduled.
"The charges will be dropped," he said. "That's a given. The appointment of Cuomo now is just a coincidence."
Spota, in announcing earlier this month that he would ask for the dismissal of murder charges against Tankleff, said he would ask Spitzer to appoint a special prosecutor to look at the defense's new evidence.
Spota said his office was prepared to relinquish the case to someone else who could probe the role of people other than Tankleff, although he said he doesn't believe the people Tankleff accused - associates of his father's former business partner Jerard Steuerman - are guilty.
The State Commission of Investigation has launched a probe into the conduct of public officials, including Spota's office, on the case. Judge Alfred Lerner, chair of the commission, said the probe into "systemic problems" would continue.
Spota's announcement that he would dismiss charges against Tankleff lifted the hopes of Tankleff's family and legal team after numerous unsuccessful appeals. He has served 17 years of a 50 years to life sentence.
Tankleff's attorneys and investigator, Jay Salpeter of Great Neck, have long maintained that a special prosecutor is needed because Spota is not objective about the case due to prior ties he had with some key players. For example, he once represented the homicide detective who took Tankleff's confession. Tankleff immediately recanted.