Defining Double Murder
Paul Vitello

June 8, 1990

Double murders are sometimes less emotionally complicated than murders committed one at a time.

This might not be scientifically provable, but it seems true often enough: the double murder is the finale of the drug deal, of the love triangle, of the armed robbery interrupted.

One murder is anger gone mad, double murder is anger harnessed by someone's desire to get away with murder.

Martin Tankleff's defense has implied this all along. It points the finger at a defaulting business partner of Seymour Tankleff as the much more clearly, and coldly, motivated killer of Seymour and Arlene Tankleff than their son, Martin, a teenager with a brand new nose job and money to burn and a habit of hugging and kissing his parents on his return each day to their vast home on the water.

Is young Martin capable of murdering one parent, then the other - while naked to avoid blood stains - then washing the weapons in the shower along with his cold-blooded self?

"Call Martin Tankleff," said the defense lawyer, Robert Gottlieb, yesterday. It was the first day of defense testimony.

Gottlieb presented Martin, the Foolish; Martin, the boy who would not only buy the Brooklyn Bridge but jump off it if the confidence artist on the case were a cop.

" . . . I was brought up to always trust and believe cops," said Martin, whose defense is built on the premise that cops lie and cheat and that, as a result, innocent people sometimes confess to crimes they did not commit.

The defense presented Martin, the Squeamish.

"I pushed down once and ran away," Martin said yesterday, describing his initial effort to help his fatally wounded father after finding him in the den, stabbed.

Why did you run away? Gottlieb asked.

"I was scared."

It is probably unfair to judge a person by how he behaves on the witness stand when charged with murdering his parents, though that is what the jury must do. Martin Tankleff must by now have carefully wrapped his emotions.

When Gottlieb tried to elicit from him the emotions he felt on the day of the murders, he was blocked by the prosecutor. When he tried to elicit how Martin felt about his parents in general, he got strangely willful replies, but not emotional ones.

"I loved my mother," said Martin, eyes wide. "I loved my father, too."

Jurors hoping to see Martin Tankleff break were disappointed.

" . . . I saw his throat was cut and I dialed 911," Martin said, describing his dying father.

When he discovered his mother, she "seemed lifeless" so he "ran out of there, screaming."

His testimony was void of emotion at all times except when he referred to the now-retired homicide detective, James McCready, who tricked him into confessing to killing his parents by telling him that his fatally wounded father had revived and told police Martin did it.

When speaking of McCready, Martin's face twisted with an imitation of a cop's bullying sneer.

" . . . You're a criminal, I'm going to lock you up." he quoted McCready telling him.

The day of the murder unfolded like a dream, a nightmare, Martin said. Yet his recall for the details of the day is acute. He remembers where he laid the towel he used for his shower the night before; when he put on the sweatshirt he wore for his interrogation that day; whether he walked on grass or on pavement on the way to police headquarters.

He has been described, and described himself yesterday, as a young man with a keen business instinct - he knew the details of his father's business, how much he was owed, and by whom; knew the terms of his parents' will; sold huge numbers of T-shirts at high school; wanted to skip college and get right down to making money.

Yet, yesterday, he had to present the side of him that was young enough and weak enough to be bluffed into folding a good hand of poker.

Why did you confess to a crime you didn't commit, he was asked by his lawyer.

"Because they were saying my father said I did this. My father never lied to me," said Martin.

Why did you confess to using a certain knife?

"It was what they wanted to hear."

Why did you admit to committing the crime naked?

"They had me believing that's the way it was."

Did you consider the consequences of saying these things?

"I felt it was all a nightmare and I was going to wake up and it was going to be all over."

The model of the Tankleff house is the first thing you see when you enter the courtroom of this trial. It is the model of an almost limitless home - so much space that a small army could be held up for days here, fighting room to room.

It is a complicated house, all angles and doorways and new discoveries at every turn. It is a house big enough to get lost in, and whatever happened there on Sept. 7, 1988, Martin Tankleff got lost in it.

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