Clashing Portraits In Tankleff Trial
By Carolyn Colwell
Staff Writer

June 21, 1990, 5:31 PM EDT

The jurors in the Martin Tankleff murder trial yesterday were given the choice of finding that he killed his parents as a result of a teenage tantrum or that he was the victim of a botched investigation in which detectives overlooked a more likely suspect.

Assistant District Attorney John Collins, methodically hammering point by point in his summation as if driving nails, said the jurors' common sense would lead them to conclude that the teenager fatally attacked Arlene and Seymour Tankleff on Sept. 7, 1988, in their Belle Terre home by slitting their throats and bludgeoning their heads.

"Your common sense will tell you that in the early morning of Sept. 7, 1988, someone did not just drop out of the sky and commit these savage attacks on Seymour and Arlene Tankleff and leave the defendant blissfully asleep in the room across the hall," Collins said. "Your common sense will tell you that you do not admit to crimes such as these after a minimal amount of confrontational questioning - unless you did it."

Earlier, Martin Tankleff's lawyer, Robert Gottlieb, gave an impassioned three-hour summation of the nine-week trial, layering detail after detail to build his defense of his client's innocence. He said the prosecution has failed to prove his client's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. "There is one and only one inescapable and undeniable conclusion," Gottlieb said. "Marty is innocent of these horrible charges . . . "

Judge Alfred Tisch will charge the jury today at Suffolk County Court in Riverhead.

In his late afternoon summation, Collins pressed several points to assure the jury that it could find Tankleff guilty of killing his parents. But he said he could not make the jury comfortable with why the crime happened. Referring to the old verse about Lizzie Borden hacking her parents to death with an axe, he said "these crimes have happened continuously through history. Unfortunately, they are going to continue to happen."

Collins attacked the defense by saying its witnesses did not provide the proof promised in opening arguments that Tankleff and his parents had a good relationship. He mocked the phrase "loving and joyful" that Tankleff's teenage friends used to describe his relationship with his parents, and suggested their testimony was contrived and unbelievable.

Collins also questioned why no member of Tankleff's Long Island family testified about the teenager's home life. "Maybe all was not so well in the paradise they would have you believe was his home," he said.

Martin Tankleff's own two days on the witness stand gave the jury a real look at him as a person, Collins said. He asked the jurors to consider whether this was a young man crushed by the loss of his parents, or was "his demeanor more consistent with an intelligent, cold and self-centered person with a convenient loss of memory."

Throughout the case, the defense tried to build an argument that there was too little time between Tankleff getting up at 5:35 a.m., the morning of the crime, and his 6:10 a.m. call to 911 for him to have committed the crimes and cleaned up the house.

But Collins said his view always has been that the crimes occurred sometime after the last cardplayer from Seymour Tankleff's weekly game left the house at 3 a.m., and before the call to 911 at 6:10 a.m. Collins said the time question the jury should be concerned about is how, according to Martin Tankleff's testimony, he gave first aid to his father and made three telephone calls in the five minutes after he hung up with 911 and before the police arrived.

Collins argued that the barbell found in Tankleff's room was the murder weapon, and he questioned the truth of Tankleff's testimony about that bar. He pointed out that Tankleff said he had not used the bar in some time, but the family's maid said the bar was lying down when she cleaned the bedroom the day before the attacks. In pictures police took after the attacks, the bar is propped vertically.

And Collins dismissed Tankleff's accusation of Jerry Steuerman, Seymour Tankleff's former business partner. Steuerman is not "a cold-blooded killer," Collins said. He described Steuerman as a "patsy" that Martin Tankleff had picked out to place the blame on. Collins also defended the investigating detectives and said they would not risk their careers to lie about Tankleff's confession.

That confession is "nothing more than the detective's own version of what they believed happened earlier that morning in the house," Gottlieb said. He argued that the physical evidence and other testimony does not support the description in the confession of how the crime was committed.

Gottlieb added that forensic tests do not prove that either the barbell or a kitchen knife was the murder weapon. He said if Tankleff had showered to wash off those weapons as detectives contend, it is unlikely that the shower spray would have missed the spot of his father's blood on his bare shoulder. Tankleff has said he did not shower that morning and he got the blood on his bare shoulder when trying to give his father first aid.

Gottlieb also argued that Tankleff had no motive to kill his parents over "his crummy old Lincoln" as the prosecution contends, and said his father was about to buy him a new Mercedes or a Porsche. Tankleff also was doing all the chores the prosecution says was a bone of contention between him and his parents, Gottlieb said.

Why then did Tankleff confess, Gottlieb asked. He said Tankleff had been traumatized and devastated by finding his parents after the attacks, by the police making him a suspect when he had turned to them for help, by relentless questioning, by being tricked by fake humidity tests and by being told his father had accused him.

The jurors didn't need an expert psychiatrist to tell them what happened to Tankleff that afternoon, Gottlieb contended. Tankleff was devastated, and "each and every one of you should realize that," he said.

Gottlieb told the jurors that if they're looking for reasonable doubt, they should look at Steuerman, who was "financially drowning" and owed Seymour Tankleff more than $500,000, yet was treated like "lost royalty" by Suffolk County police when they tracked him down in Southern California two weeks after the Tankleffs were attacked.

"We are not saying to you that we actually have proof that Jerry Steuerman actually wielded the knife or wielded any other blunt instrument. We don't know . . . but surely there are enough questions about that to raise very serious doubts about his possible involvement," he said. Calling the last months a nightmare for Tankleff, he asked the jury "to please let him finally grieve in the open, out from under the cloud of being accused and thought of by others as the person who killed his parents. He's innocent. Marty is innocent."

Collins closed his summation with a different view.

"For God's sake, and for Seymour and Arlene's sake, use your common sense," Collins said. "We've had a trial here that has encompassed both Mother's and Father's Day. Let's not forget whose rights were violated here. Go ahead, please do your duty, deliberate and come back with the one reasonable verdict that's consistent with the credible evidence, and I submit to you that verdict is guilty."

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