Insights, perspectives into Tankleff murder trial


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June 16, 2008

Over 10 warm spring weeks in 1990, 12 men and women gathered in a stuffy courtroom to sit in judgment of a Belle Terre student charged in one of the most horrific crimes Suffolk County had ever known.

After deliberating more than eight days, the Riverhead jury convicted Martin Tankleff, then 19, of murdering his mother, Arlene, and father, Seymour.

Tankleff had served 17 years of a 50-years-to-life sentence when an appellate court overturned his conviction in December, swayed in part by considerable new evidence of the involvement of other possible suspects.

Tankleff is still waiting to hear from state prosecutors to see whether they intend to dismiss the charges or retry him. Prosecutors with the state attorney general's office took over the case from Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota in January.

Through the years, the complex case has been reduced to a simple shorthand easily summarized in the thousands of stories about it: Tankleff says he was forced to confess and that the real killer was his father's business partner, who owed Seymour Tankleff hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But the transcript of the trial, analyzed by Newsday over several weeks, offers insights and perspectives largely unexplored in recent news accounts.

Officials in the Suffolk district attorney's office, including the case's prosecutor, John Collins - now the office's chief trial prosecutor - declined to comment pending a decision from the attorney general on Tankleff's charges. The three detectives who investigated the case and testified, and the trial's judge, Alfred Tisch, also declined to comment.


Although it wasn't presented to the jury, the allegations of police misconduct that were at the heart of Tankleff's defense echoed many similar complaints that plagued the department for years and were the subject of a nearly 200-page State Investigation Commission report released just a year earlier.

The commission blasted the county's law enforcement agencies for having a mind-set that, "You do what you've got to do in order to arrest and convict" and boasting an "astonishingly high" 94 percent confession rate in homicide cases that "provoked skepticism."


"All this time, Marty was just screaming, 'Murder. Murder,' and I just ran after him," said one of the first witnesses in the trial, the Tankleffs' neighbor, Morton Hova.

Collins asked if, despite Tankleff's screams, Hova ever saw him cry.

"No, I didn't see him cry," he responded.

Prosecutors relied on three types of evidence, much of it circumstantial, in making a case against Tankleff: his disputed confession, testimony intended to establish a motive for Tankleff to commit the crime and show his lack of emotion to his parents' deaths, and forensic evidence, which defense attorneys said more clearly pointed away from Tankleff than toward him.

While questioning several witnesses who saw Tankleff immediately after the murders, Collins also zeroed in on Tankleff's unemotional state.

Defense attorney Robert Gottlieb scoffed at the conclusions police and prosecutors drew from the witnesses' testimony, and noted that several prosecution witnesses testified about Tankleff appearing "shocked," "hyper" and "excited" after discovering his parents.


"A piece of watermelon, I believe, a plate - a paper plate ... [was] next to the knife, yes," Suffolk forensic scientist Robert Baumann testified.

"And the watermelon is pinkish in color, right?" Gottlieb asked.

"Yes, the central part, sure," he responded.

"And the color of this material [on the knife] you saw was what?" Gottlieb asked, zeroing in on what police said was the murder weapon. Later, however, tests for blood were negative.


Prosecutors also relied on forensic evidence that they said proved Tankleff's guilt. Much of it, however, dealt with what police didn't find - no blood on a door handle and several phones that Tankleff touched after he said he aided his bleeding father, for example. Police said Tankleff confessed to killing his mother first and then attacked his father.

But Gottlieb offered a different perspective on the forensic evidence, which he said was definitive proof that Tankleff's supposed confession was false.

Police said that Tankleff confessed to being nude when he bludgeoned his parents with a barbell, stabbed them with a kitchen knife, and then washed himself and the murder weapons in the shower.

But lab results, which came back days after Tankleff's confession, found no traces of blood or human tissue on the sponge that police said Tankleff used, in any of the drains or traps in the sinks and tubs in the house, on the disassembled barbell or on the disassembled knife. Scientists determined the substance on the knife wasn't blood, but it dissolved before it could be tested for anything else.


Testimony from both the defendant and detectives established this much: After being questioned for more than an hour, Tankleff finally said, "Yeah, I did it." But the explanations of how that came to be uttered were vastly different.

The apparent admission came after Det. K. James McCready tricked Tankleff by telling him he had received a call from a police officer who said Seymour awoke from his coma and fingered his son as his attacker.

Det. Norman Rein and McCready testified that the interview was conversational for about an hour, before McCready began getting more confrontational and asked Tankleff why he wasn't crying.

Using a common and legally acceptable tactic, McCready tried to trick Tankleff a few times, including by telling him that a "humidity test" proved he took a shower that morning and not the previous night as he claimed, and that his hair was found in his mother's hand.

Then McCready left to another room and pretended to take a call. When he returned, he told Tankleff his father had awoken and told police that he did it.

Tankleff still insisted he didn't do it, saying his father must have only said that because he was the last person he saw. His confession, according to Rein, began with Tankleff asking, "Could I have blacked out and done it? ... It's not likely it's me, but it's like another Tankleff that killed him ... Could I be possessed?"

The detectives only then read Tankleff his rights and asked him again if he killed his parents. "Yeah, I did it," Tankleff said.

The final product was a confession written by detectives, who said they captured the substance of Tankleff's words, and unsigned by Tankleff. It mentioned only Arlene's slaying, as Tankleff's attorney stopped detectives before they could write about the attack on Seymour.


"Now that you know that Mr. Steuerman had changed his appearance and was traveling under a phony name, an alias, was he a suspect in this case at all?" Gottlieb asked Det. Sgt. Robert Doyle, who supervised the case.

"No, sir. He was not," Doyle replied.

Nearly as key a figure in the trial as the defendant himself was Jerry Steuerman, the business partner of Seymour Tankleff who Tankleff and several family members immediately suspected of the killing.

In his testimony, Steuerman confirmed that his business relationship with Seymour had deteriorated in the weeks leading up the murders so badly that they were barely on speaking terms. Steuerman owed Seymour more than $500,000 and that amount was growing.

Some $50,000 of Steuerman's debt was owed the week of the murders - as shown by a promissory note found spattered with blood on Seymour's desk.

According to police and Steuerman, a week after the attacks - with Seymour still alive and several weeks before he was given a do-not-resuscitate order - Steuerman visited his attorney to tell him about death threats he said he'd received, sent his son an ominous message about soon meeting with their deceased mother, checked into a Hauppauge hotel under an alias, and then parked his car across the street with the engine on, door open, and his bracelet on the floor. Then he went in the hotel and shaved off his beard, took a bus to Atlantic City and a limo to Newark Airport, flew across the country under a different name and checked into a psychiatric spa.

But Doyle said he never considered him a suspect because "I had a valid confession" from Tankleff.

In one of the trial's most emotional outbursts, Steuerman insisted while being cross-examined, "I am no murderer ... I did not do this. ... I should not be here."


Several pieces of evidence that defense attorneys said could have made a big difference in the trial were never presented to the jury.

Among them was a statement given to police by Joseph Creedon - one of the men Tankleff's attorneys now claim carried out the killings - in which he said that Steuerman's son, Todd, talked about his father looking for somebody to cut Martin Tankleff's tongue out of his mouth. Tisch ruled that the statement had "no relevance."

Despite prosecutors' depiction of Tankleff as unemotional after the slayings, Tisch repeatedly blocked Gottlieb's attempts to ask Tankleff about how he felt after discovering his parents had been attacked, saying it was not "relevant."


Key Moments From Martin Tankleff's 1990 Murder Trial:

May 3. On his third day on the witness stand, Jerry Steuerman emotionally broke down, saying, "It's not fair that I'm put through this. And Marty Tankleff sitting over there is accused of this and I am not ... I am not murderer. I did not do this."

June 7: Martin Tankleff testified in his own defense, recalling his confusion after being lied to by detectives. "I said, 'Could I have blacked out?' ... I started believing them that I did do this ... They were saying my father said I did this. My father never lied to me."

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