New York Times 

January 19, 2008

Man Freed After 17 Years in Prison Faces New Investigation in Murder

By PAUL VITELLO

RIVERHEAD, N.Y. — A state prosecutor was given 30 days by a Suffolk County judge on Friday to decide how to proceed with a case involving the 1988 murders of a Long Island couple now that the conviction of their son, Martin H. Tankleff, has been overturned.

Mr. Tankleff, who was granted a new trial last month and released from prison after 17 years, hoped to see all charges against him dismissed on Friday in Suffolk County Criminal Court. Instead, he faces the prospect of a reinvestigation by the new prosecutor, who is to examine all possible suspects, including him.

“This case has a substantial history,” said the prosecutor, Benjamin E. Rosenberg, the chief trial counsel in the office of Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo. He said he would need time to review the record before deciding how to proceed in a case that is by all accounts a vast paper universe of disputed evidence.

Barry J. Pollack, one of Mr. Tankleff’s lawyers, said he was confident that the investigation would quickly clear Mr. Tankleff, adding, “We’ve waited 20 years for justice. We can wait another 30 days.”

Mr. Tankleff’s conviction in the murder of his parents, Arlene and Seymour Tankleff, of Belle Terre, was overturned on Dec. 21 in a unanimous decision by a panel of the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court. Pointing to a body of new evidence, the court ruled that had jurors at Mr. Tankleff’s trial known about the evidence, they would probably have acquitted him.

Gov. Eliot Spitzer appointed Mr. Cuomo as special prosecutor in response to a request this month from Thomas J. Spota, the Suffolk County district attorney, who led a four-year fight against Mr. Tankleff’s appeal, but decided not to retry him once the conviction was overturned and a new trial ordered.

Though Mr. Spota said he would seek dismissal of all charges against Mr. Tankleff, the appointment of the special prosecutor all but guaranteed that the charges would not be dropped — one of the new prosecutor’s options is to appeal the Dec. 21 decision overturning Mr. Tankleff’s conviction.

The evidence cited by the appellate panel included statements by a number of people who claimed to have heard others admit their involvement in the murders, including a priest who said one of the killers confessed his role years ago. All the new evidence implicated a former business partner of Seymour Tankleff, Jerard Steuerman, the former owner of a Long Island chain of bagel shops, who is now retired and living in Florida.

Mr. Tankleff, 17 at the time of the murders, has always claimed that Mr. Steuerman was involved in the slayings. Mr. Steuerman owed a large amount of money to Seymour Tankleff, had quarreled with him about the terms of repayment, and was the last person to leave a poker game in the Tankleffs’ home on the night before their bodies were discovered on the morning of Sept. 17, 1988.

In the days after the murders, Mr. Steuerman fled to California under an assumed name, leaving behind a trail of false evidence that he had been kidnapped and killed. But the Suffolk County police focused their suspicions on Mr. Tankleff from the start. They interrogated him for many hours, at one point falsely claiming that his father had awakened from a coma and identified him as his attacker — though in fact the elder Mr. Tankleff never woke up during the month he lingered before dying.

In a statement written down for him by detectives, but never signed by Mr. Tankleff, the teenager confessed to having committed the murders in a fit of rage. But Mr. Tankleff said the statement was based on a false confession wrung out of a distraught, confused boy.

Mr. Cuomo has said that the special prosecutor’s investigation will include a review of the substance and circumstances of that confession, new interviews with any witnesses still alive, and a review of evidence collected just after the murders and the new evidence gathered over the last four years by a private investigator, Jay Salpeter, who worked on the case pro bono for the most part. The case has refocused attention on the police and prosecutorial methods in Suffolk County, where a state investigation found rampant misconduct in the 1980s.

A separate inquiry is under way by the State Commission of Investigation, examining how Suffolk County prosecuted the case against Mr. Tankleff. Mr. Cuomo said his office would have no role in that investigation.

Mr. Tankleff, now 36, remains free on $1 million bail. He was ordered to return to court on Feb. 15.