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New York Law Journal
Laura R. Taichman was a law student at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston in the early 1990s. Assigned to prepare a paper for her advanced criminal procedure class, her choice of topic was a natural: the 1988 slayings of Arlene and Seymour Tankleff in her hometown of Belle Terre, Long Island.
Ms. Taichman's paper would come to inspire a pro bono legal team of 13 years' standing, a team composed of lawyers from several of the nation's biggest firms whose members estimate they have contributed several million dollars worth of time to the defense of Martin H. Tankleff, who as a teen was booked for double murder of his parents, convicted in 1990, sentenced to 50 years to life in prison, and sent to the Clinton Correctional Facility at Dannemora.
Last month, Mr. Tankleff's murder conviction was vacated by the Appellate Division, Second Department (NYLJ, Dec. 24, 2007). On Jan. 2, Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas J. Spota said he would not seek a new trial, although since then Governor Eliot Spitzer has named Attorney General Andrew Cuomo as special prosecutor to look into the murders.
Ms. Taichman went to high school with Mr. Tankleff, although being two classes ahead their relationship was casual. She was further associated with a major player in the murder case due to a summer job she held as a teen: Ms. Taichman worked in a bagel shop operated by Jerard Steuerman, in debt to his business partner, Seymour Tankleff, to the tune of $500,000. The younger Mr. Tankleff was a sometimes customer of the shop.
Mr. Steuerman's possible involvement in the murders was a major reason for the appellate court's decision in vacating Mr. Tankleff's conviction.
See AG's Chief Trial Counsel Prepares to Tackle Tankleff Murder Case as Special Prosecutor.
"I always followed the case," Ms. Taichman said in a telephone interview Wednesday from her home in California, where she was once an associate at the San Francisco headquarters of Morrison & Foerster after a stint at the firm's Manhattan office.
"For my paper," she said, "I read all the court transcripts and interviewed all the lawyers. I never thought Marty did it. The facts didn't make sense."
Among the first of Ms. Taichman's doubts, she said, was a gruesome detail in the police report. Seymour Tankleff's killer or killers bludgeoned him to death, after which they performed a coup de grace commonly used by drug dealers as a warning to rivals - the so-called "Colombian necktie," whereby the tongue is pulled out from a slit throat.
"In the days pre-Internet, I don't believe little Marty Tankleff could know of such things," said Ms. Taichman. "We were middle-class kids who trusted the cops, and believed they had nothing less than our best interests at heart."
In the summer of 1995, Ms. Taichman was putting the final touches on her voluminous classroom paper while completing an internship at Miller, Cassidy, Larroca & Lewin, a white-collar criminal defense boutique in Washington, D.C. Two of her bosses there - partner Stephen L. Braga and associate Barry J. Pollack - hosted a farewell luncheon for her one Friday afternoon, at which time the subject of pro bono opportunities arose.
"Laura said, 'Well, I know of a case,'" Mr. Braga recollected.
"She firmly believed Marty wasn't involved in the murders," said Mr. Pollack. "Even back then, I was a little jaded. I said, 'Sure, sure - he didn't do it.' Then I started reading [Ms. Taichman's paper and attached documents]. The more I read, the more it seemed to me there was no case against Marty Tankleff."
He added, "We became convinced that it was a worthy cause."
Mr. Pollack would become lead counsel in a pro bono team that has included, at various stages, lawyers from four large national firms: Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr; Kelley Drye & Warren, where Mr. Pollack is now a partner; Baker Botts, where Mr. Braga is now a partner; and Clifford Chance.
Bruce A. Barket, a former prosecutor with the Nassau County District Attorney's Office and now a principal in the Garden City firm Barket & Angeli, is also part of the pro bono effort.
"What's really amazing to me is the wide range of firms working on this," said Scott J. Splittgerber, a Clifford Chance associate and former prosecutor with the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office who wrote appellate briefs on behalf of Mr. Tankleff. "It never became a turf issue. We all had the same goal in mind."
Mr. Braga said the goal was justice, evidenced by dozens of lawyers who "kept joining the case, and they've never left it."
Lonnie Soury, who owns a Manhattan public relations agency, also has worked pro bono as a spokesman for Mr. Tankleff's uncles, aunts and cousins - all of whom have stood firm in their belief in his innocence.
"I speak differently than the lawyers, and I've disagreed with them on tactics," said Mr. Soury. "I wanted lots of media coverage."
He added, "We may disagree, but we all respected that the bottom line was Marty."
Mr. Soury's media campaign has led to such strongly worded pro-defense newspaper editorials and essays as "Justice Perverted," Newsday; "True and Untrue Confessions," The New York Times; and "Find Tankleff Killers," New York Daily News. National and international TV crews also have covered the case.
In addition, Mr. Soury created a Web site - www.martytankleff.org - that provides anonymous phone tip lines, capsule descriptions of each step of the case, an online forum and defense fund and the sale of "Free Marty" T-shirts.
The case laid out on the legal end, said Mr. Pollack, is likely to be used as comprehensive instruction in law schools throughout the country.
"It's got legal issues in just about every form you face. We argued before the Second Circuit and got a remand back to the state trial court for a hearing there, then we're back in the Eastern District and then we were back up to the Second Circuit," he said.
He added, "I mean, this is a trip through the entire federal habeas system. It's final exam material."
Ms. Taichman, now well-acquainted with Mr. Tankleff due to years of e-mail communication, said of her fellow high school alum, "Marty is going to become a lawyer. He'll fight for people who are innocent, which he's probably already done in a jail system where he's likely the most educated person around."
She added, "As a lawyer, he's going to do great things - menschy things."