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By FRANK ELTMAN
4:02 PM EST, January 18, 2008
GARDEN CITY, N.Y.
The state attorney general's top trial lawyer will lead a team of special prosecutors appointed to investigate a notorious Long Island murder case where a man spent 17 years in prison before an appeals court said he might be innocent.
The high-powered legal team formally took over the investigation from the local district attorney Friday at a brief proceeding in Suffolk County Court in Riverhead.
Benjamin Rosenberg, a former U.S. attorney, will head Andrew Cuomo's team of attorneys and detectives appointed to investigate the deaths of Arlene and Seymour Tankleff, who were bludgeoned and stabbed to death in their Belle Terre home in September 1988.
The couple's son, Martin Tankleff, was charged with the murders at age 17 and convicted in 1990, but a state appeals court overturned that conviction last month. Although the court did not clear Tankleff, it said new evidence about other possible suspects was compelling enough to warrant a new trial.
Defense attorneys have long contended that Tankleff's disputed confession given to detectives on the day of the killings was coerced, and argue that a family business associate was the real culprit.
Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota said earlier this month he would not pursue a second trial against Tankleff, citing changes in the law and other logistical difficulties. He did, however, ask that Gov. Eliot Spitzer appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Tankleff's claims that others were behind the killings.
A murder indictment against Tankleff had been expected to be dismissed on Friday, but when Cuomo's office took the case last week, the attorney general said that move would be postponed until his team has an opportunity to conduct its own investigation.
"We'll want to preserve all of our options," Cuomo said.
Rosenberg's team also includes assistant attorneys general Risa Sugarman, the former chief of the Bronx district attorney's homicide bureau, and Thomas Schellhammer, a former Manhattan homicide prosecutor.
Barbara Underwood, who served as acting solicitor general of the United States in early 2001 and is currently New York's solicitor general, will handle any appeal issues, said Jeffrey Lerner, a Cuomo spokesman.
In addition, four retired NYPD homicide detectives will assist investigators, Lerner said.
Tankleff remains free on $1 million bail. His next court date was scheduled for Feb. 15.