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Tankleff Is Convicted of Murder
Teen, family sob at verdict in deaths of parents
By Carolyn Colwell
June 29, 1990
A moment of joyful relief for Martin Tankleff and his family was shattered by the crushing blow of the word guilty yesterday as a Suffolk County Court jury delivered its verdict that the Belle Terre teenager brutally killed his parents.
After eight days of deliberation, the foreman first announced that the jury had found Tankleff not guilty of intentionally murdering his mother. But then he said Tankleff had been found guilty of murdering her by depraved indifference to human life. The jurors also found him guilty of intentionally murdering his father.
As the verdicts were read, Tankleff's knees buckled. He collapsed into his chair, sank his head in his hands and his body shook with sobs - his first display of emotion during the 10-week trial. He was remanded to jail without bail. Tankleff regained his composure as he was led out of the courtroom in handcuffs. He did not look back at his family.
Behind him, his cousin's wife, Carol Falbee, collapsed into the arms of her husband, Ron. For the last year, Tankleff has been living with the Falbees, becoming a fifth member of their family.
His mother's younger sister, Marianne McClure, sat with her head on her knees; an older sister, Marcella Alt Falbee, had her hands clasped on her knees as if in prayer.
Both intentional murder and murder by depraved indifference are second-degree murder charges. When Tankleff, 18, is sentenced on Aug. 28, he faces a minimum prison term of 15 years to life and a maximum term of 50 years to life.
Assistant District Attorney John Collins said he will ask for the maximum penalty, and said Tankleff's testimony may have helped convict him. Tankleff's attorney, Robert Gottlieb, said that given issues such as the voluntariness of Tankleff's statements to police, he is confident of "a very strong appeal."
But one of the jurors interviewed after the verdicts appeared convinced of Tankleff's guilt. "I checked that evidence over and over again," said the juror, who asked to remain anonymous. "There was no doubt the kid did it."
Tankleff's aunts, cousins and uncle fled from the media after the verdicts and had no comment. They have stood by Tankleff since his arrest on Sept. 7, 1988, attended every day of his trial and protested his innocence.
Tankleff's sister, Shari Rother, was not at the courthouse. She said later at her Port Jefferson Station home, "I can't make a statement right now. I'll be making a statement in a few days. It hurts real bad. I need a few days to take it all in."
Most jurors would not comment. Three who were interviewed said the evidence of Tankleff's guilt was overwhelming, but they gave few specifics about how the jury reached its decision.
"No one came to a decision on a hunch. No one came to a decision on anything other than the facts that were presented to us. For that, I will not have a hard time sleeping at night," said Frank Spindel, a cabinet maker.
Another juror, who asked not to be named, said the jury was troubled by inconsistencies in Tankleff's story and didn't believe he would confess - as the defense contended - to something he didn't do. "A normal person doesn't crack for something that he didn't do," the juror said. "The real Marty didn't do it, like he said. The real Marty was somewhere else. The kid snapped."
The verdict followed nine weeks of testimony and eight days of deliberation. The question facing the jurors was whether Tankleff attacked his parents on Sept. 7, 1988, by cutting their throats and bludgeoning their heads.
Arlene Tankleff's body was found by police at 6:17 a.m. in the master bedroom; Seymour Tankleff was gagging and struggling for breath in the office of the waterfront home.
Within hours, police said Martin Tankleff confessed to them that he'd attacked his parents because of grievances ranging from having to drive a "crummy old Lincoln," to where he would attend college to having to do household chores. During the trial, detectives testified that they quickly zeroed-in on Tankleff as a suspect because of what they called an inappropriate calm demeanor Tankleff exhibited after finding his parents and calling 911. Anyone else would have "been a box of rocks" after finding his parents' butchered bodies, testified James McCready, a detective who has retired from the Suffolk police.
But Tankleff said he was in shock and has said that McCready and his partner, Det. Norman Rein, coerced him into confessing. A defense psychiatrist testified that because of the psychological trauma Tankleff suffered that morning, he was feeling powerless and falsely confessed because the detectives he trusted pressured him into telling them what they wanted to hear.
Tankleff accused his father's business partner, Jerry Steuerman, of the slayings, but police said they eliminated Steuerman as a suspect even though he was financially drowning and owed Seymour Tankleff more than $500,000. Steuerman, who testified for three days, told the jury, "I am no murderer."
Yesterday, Steuerman could only express his relief. "As far as I'm concerned, it's over with. Thank God," Steuerman said outside his Lake Ronkonkama home.
Collins said he was not surprised by the jurors' split verdicts of intentional murder and murder by depraved indifference. The latter means taking action with such reckless disregard for human life that it is depraved indifference. Collins suggested the jurors "may well have felt that the situation with the mother occurred first and it somehow got out of hand, and then after having had the situation occur with his mother he then went to intentionally kill his father."
Tankleff's testimony may have been the key to the prosecution, Collins said. Taking the stand in his own defense, Tankleff told the jury: "I loved my parents. I had nothing to do with this." But most of his testimony was unemotional, and he gave what sounded like rehearsed answers to his attorney's questions.
"I think that testimony showed him not to be the person the defense said he was," Collins said.
The issue of whether Tankleff was brainwashed into making a truthful confession didn't apply to this case, he said. "Nobody has ever taken the position that somebody could not be brainwashed into admitting something that he didn't do. However, not in this set of facts and not in this set of circumstances."
The detectives who took the confession have said that at times they felt as if they were on trial as their word about what Tankleff said and meant was pitted against the defendant's. McCready, who obtained the confession after less than four hours of questioning, said: "Oh, absolutely, I feel vindicated . . . You cannot bring back Seymour and Arlene. The rest of the family loses no matter what."
During the trial, there was testimony about a $750 purchase Tankleff made through the health club his father co-owned. Collins said after the verdict that the items purchased were steroids, drugs body builders use to build bulk and a drug that has been connected by some medical researchers with what is termed " 'roid rage" - uncontrollable spells of anger.
Gottlieb angrily denied that Tankleff had ever bought or used steriods, and said information about the purchase was not admitted as testimony because of a ruling that it would have been misleading. He said the purchased items were natural vitamins. Dan Hayes, the manager and co-owner of the health club where Tankleff made the purchases, said yesterday that the pills were a synthetic form of steroids made from sarsaparilla root, were not illegal and could be ordered by mail from body-building magazines. Hayes said he didn't believe Tankleff had ever taken them himself, but purchased them to resell them to his friends.
Gottlieb said the case involved a "lot of issues that we fully expect will result in an appeal that will result in the verdict being overturned." One of the issues he said was the voluntariness of the statements made to police. The defense contended that Tankleff was in custody for more than two hours before police gave him his Miranda rights.
The Tankleff case will continue in another form in the Surrogate Court battle between Tankleff's sister and the estate. As a result of being convicted, Tankleff will not be eligible to inherit the bulk of the estate as provided for in his father's will. His sister is contesting that will, which left a smaller share of the estate to her, saying it is a fraud and a forgery.
Late yesterday, members of Tankleff's family went to Suffolk County jail in Riverhead to visit him. Gottlieb, who was there, too, said family members were not ready to comment publicly on the verdict, but "they want it made very clear that they support Marty, and stressed strongly that he is innocent. Nothing has changed. They're a thousand percent behind him." Gottlieb said he saw Tankleff, and that he "is absolutely in shock and he cannot believe the verdict."
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