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BY ZACHARY R. DOWDY
April 11, 2008
He spoke nary a word, but Martin Tankleff and his experience with the criminal justice system took center stage Friday at a conference highlighting cases his supporters say are examples of wrongful convictions, a plague that organizers said could be checked if police interrogations are taped.
"It's our job to learn from wrongful convictions," said Barry Scheck, an attorney and co-founder of the Innocence Project at Cardozo Law School in Manhattan.
Scheck was the first expert to speak at the New York State Democratic Task Force on Criminal Justice Reform event on wrongful convictions, held at Stony Brook University.
Scheck, who has supported Tankleff in his bid to overturn his conviction for the Sept. 7, 1988, murders of his parents in their Belle Terre home, cited the State Investigative Commission's report that chided Suffolk homicide detectives for their interrogation tactics. Supporters of taping believe it will discourage abusive questioning and false confessions.
"In light of that background, it's no surprise we have Marty Tankleff's case," said Scheck, one of several to speak at the event.
The conference is one of several being held across the state by the task force, headed by state Sen. Eric Schneideman (D-Manhattan). The task force is working toward a law to require police in New York to videotape interrogations.
Other legislators include Sen. Eric Adams of Brooklyn, Sen. Bill Perkins of Manhattan, Sen. Velmanette Montgomery of Brooklyn and Assemb. Charles Lavine of Glen Cove.
Tankleff, who was convicted in 1990, largely on a confession he said was coerced and didn't sign, sat in the audience during the event. But he also appeared on stage while his spokesman, Lonnie Soury, reviewed his case.
In a written statement issued as testimony, though, Tankleff said everyone suffers when convictions are misplaced.
"Who pays the price for wrongful convictions?" he wrote. "It's not just the wrongfully convicted and their family and friends. ... The whole community suffers because when someone is wrongfully convicted it means that a criminal walks the street committing additional crimes."
Late last year, a state appellate court overturned Tankleff's conviction, citing the emergence of new evidence.
"We need mandatory electronic recordings so that justice is carried out with precision," Schneiderman said.