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New York Times
July 1, 2008
By BRUCE LAMBERT
RIVERHEAD, N.Y. — A criminal investigation that started two decades ago effectively came to an end on Monday, as the state attorney general’s office said it would not retry Martin H. Tankleff for the murder of his parents.
Though Mr. Tankleff has accused others of being the culprits, and the state conceded that “there is some evidence that others may have committed the killings,” it concluded that the evidence was too shaky to prosecute them. Mr. Tankleff’s convictions were overturned in December after he had spent 17 years in prison.
The developments came in Suffolk County Court here, where the attorney general’s representatives filed a motion to drop the original indictments against Mr. Tankleff “in the interests of justice.” Though the judge, Robert W. Doyle, reserved his decision, both sides said they expected him to grant the motion.
“It’s 20 years overdue,” a smiling Mr. Tankleff, 36, said at a news conference after the court proceeding. “I’m just looking forward to getting on with my life.” Because of the proceeding, he missed his first day of summer classes at Hofstra University, where he is studying to become a defense lawyer.
But the state’s findings disappointed Mr. Tankleff and his supporters on two major fronts. The state did not fully exonerate him, maintaining instead that there was “some evidence” of his guilt, but not enough to convict.
Unless additional new evidence arises, the investigation is now complete, a state official said. A separate inquiry of the entire case is pending at the State Commission of Investigation, but it does not have prosecutorial powers.
Asked about the possibility of a civil suit, Mr. Tankleff said, “This isn’t over for us.” One of his lawyers, Bruce A. Barket, said that although no decision had been made about suing either the county, its law enforcement agencies or the men they believe committed the crimes, Mr. Tankleff “certainly deserves compensation” for 17 years of wrongful imprisonment and his fear that he would never be free again.
Mr. Tankleff’s parents, Arlene and Seymour Tankleff, were slashed and bludgeoned on Sept. 7, 1988, in their home atop a cliff overlooking Long Island Sound in Belle Terre. He was 17 at the time. A jury convicted him in 1990, based largely on a disputed confession that the police wrote but that he repudiated and never signed, and Mr. Tankleff was sentenced to life in prison.
From prison, Mr. Tankleff filed a series of appeals. In December, the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court in Brooklyn unanimously overturned the convictions, saying that a jury would probably acquit Mr. Tankleff if it heard the extensive new evidence, much of it gathered by a private investigator, that he said implicated his father’s embittered business partner and a band of three ex-convicts.
Though the appellate ruling led to Mr. Tankleff’s release, it left the old indictments standing. After the Suffolk County district attorney, Thomas J. Spota, agreed to drop the charges, Gov. Eliot Spitzer appointed Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo as a special prosecutor to review the case, and the indictments remained.
Mr. Cuomo’s chief trial counsel, Benjamin E. Rosenberg, summarized the state’s findings to Judge Doyle, saying, “After extensive review, the attorney general has determined that although there is some evidence that the defendant, Martin Tankleff, committed the crimes charged, after 20 years the evidence is insufficient to conclude or to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he did so.”
Thus, Mr. Rosenberg said, the state is unable “to proceed in good faith with this case and ultimately to convince a jury of the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Since the original trial, precedents in other cases would probably exclude the disputed confession from a new trial and would preclude retrying the “depraved indifference” murder charge in the mother’s death, the state said.
The state cast doubt on Mr. Tankleff’s theory of the case, noting that “many, but not all, of the witnesses the defense relied on have recanted their testimony or changed their stories when we interviewed them.” No details were given.
Disputing that, Mr. Barket, the defense lawyer, said, “We have talked to all our core witnesses, and they said they told the A.G. what they told us.”
Although the state said that some witnesses speaking on behalf of Mr. Tankleff were credible, many were unreliable. It concluded, “On balance, the defense theory does not appear to be supported by clear evidence; there are sufficient conflicting pieces that could raise the issue of reasonable doubt.”
One piece of new evidence was a bloody imprint on a sheet in Mrs. Tankleff’s bedroom that appeared to be from a knife — “presumably a murder weapon,” the state said. No matching knife was found, which suggested that someone other than Mr. Tankleff had taken it.
The state said it also discovered that the lead homicide detective in the case, James McCready, violated rules by showing crime-scene photographs to unauthorized persons.
Detective McCready’s credibility has been questioned. He denied at trial that he had known Seymour Tankleff’s business partner, Jerard Steuerman, but two new witnesses testified that they had seen the two men together.
Mr. Steuerman owed $500,000 to Mr. Tankleff, who was demanding repayment, and they fought over control of their bagel business. Mr. Steuerman was at the Tankleff home for a poker game late on the night of the attacks and was the last player to leave. He has denied guilt and “refused to cooperate in our investigation,” the state said.
“There are strong passions on all sides,” the attorney general’s motion said.
The passion was evident among the family, friends, lawyers and other supporters who packed the court, exchanging hugs and kisses.
They burst into applause when the investigator who produced the new evidence, Jay Salpeter, said he had a message for Mr. Tankleff’s parents: “It’s time now that you can rest in peace. Your son is home, and he’s here to stay.”