Newsday Editorial

Next act begins in the Tankleff drama

January 20, 2008

Stubbornly, after three decades, the case of People v. Tankleff refuses to exit the stage.

But now, thanks to Gov. Eliot Spitzer and Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, we are on the verge of getting action on this murder case from prosecutors with no connection to Suffolk County. In a case with such a potent hold on the public imagination over so many years, that is a welcome prospect.

Last month, the Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court overturned Martin Tankleff's conviction and ordered a new trial. Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota said he did not plan to appeal to the Court of Appeals in Albany. Further, because he deemed it nearly impossible to convict Tankleff at a new trial, he didn't plan to try him again.

But Spota said he did plan to ask Spitzer to appoint a special prosecutor to decide whether to prosecute other suspects turned up by the Tankleff defense. The district attorney made clear that he saw no compelling evidence that the other suspects committed the crimes. But his request for a special prosecutor left that decision to someone else.

Spitzer answered the call and made the right choice in Cuomo, who has the resources to do it right. And the attorney general named a high-powered team to the case. As lead counsel, he named Ben Rosenberg, a former assistant U.S. attorney. The team includes investigators who are former New York City homicide detectives. And if it decides that any appeals are necessary, it has the state's solicitor general, Barbara Underwood.

The new prosecution team has a month to decide whether to appeal the Appellate Division's ruling granting a new trial. Meanwhile, it has made one major decision already: At a brief proceeding Friday, it did not ask a judge to dismiss Tankleff's indictment, as Spota had said he would do.

That was the right call. It would have been irresponsible for a new prosecutor to seek a dismissal so soon after getting the case - before having a chance to read transcripts of the original trial and of the protracted hearing about new post-trial evidence that the Tankleff defense offered.

But for Tankleff, finally out of prison and on the verge of being out from under the indictment, the delay is a rude jolt. Given the case's history, though, nothing should surprise him or us.

It began on Sept. 7, 1988, when someone murdered Seymour Tankleff and his wife, Arlene, in their Belle Terre home. Suffolk police immediately fixed on their son, then 17, as the suspect. He told police that his father's business associate, Jerry Steuerman, had committed the crimes. But a detective lied and told the boy his father was still alive and had named him as the attacker. Tankleff confessed. He didn't sign the confession; in fact, he recanted it. But it stood up at trial and led to his conviction in 1990.

More than a decade later, the defense brought out new witnesses pointing to Joseph Creedon, a drug debt collector for Steuerman's son, as the central figure in the murders. After a long hearing process, Suffolk County Court Judge Stephen Braslow rejected the evidence, but the Appellate Division in Brooklyn decisively rejected Braslow's ruling.

For Cuomo's team, just reading all these transcripts will be a colossal task. But the team needs to do a lot more than that. It will obviously consult with the original prosecutors, but it should also ask the Tankleff defense team for insights into its witnesses, beyond what's on the printed page.

For Tankleff, for Suffolk's criminal justice system - once maligned for relying too heavily on confessions - and for all who hold strong views on Tankleff's guilt or innocence, the special prosecutor must make decisions and take actions that will not only be fair, but be seen to be fair. That's no easy job.