New Evidence in 1988 Slayings
DA to explore inmate's statement on Belle Terre killings
By Robin Topping and Andrew Smith

October 2, 2003

Attorneys for Martin Tankleff, the Belle Terre man convicted of brutally murdering his parents, have presented new evidence that they say should exonerate him, and Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota has said it's worth investigating.

Tankleff's lawyers have a sworn statement by an inmate who says he drove the real killers to and from the murder scene. They have given Suffolk prosecutors an affidavit from Glenn Harris, an inmate who says he drove two men to the home of Arlene and Seymour Tankleff the night they were murdered in September 1988, and waited until the men ran out and ordered him to speed away.

Harris, who is at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining for violating parole on a burglary conviction, said the two men appeared "nervous" and "winded" afterward. One of the men also immediately burned the clothes he was wearing, Harris said in the Aug. 29 statement.

"This has bothered me for a long time and when [defense investigator Jay Salpeter] contacted me it gave me the opportunity to tell the truth," Harris said. Salpeter contacted Harris while reinvestigating Tankleff's case because Harris had been arrested for burglary with another man allegedly involved in the murder of Tankleff's parents, said Bruce Barket of Garden City, one of Tankleff's lawyers. Barket pressed his case with Spota this week.

In court papers to be filed today in Riverhead, defense attorneys wrote: "This Court has a very clear opportunity ... to correct an obvious and tragic injustice, to vacate this innocent young man's conviction, and to permit, for the first time, an honest, impartial and professional investigation of the real facts ... "

Spota said, "I assured Mr. Barket that we'll conduct a fair and comprehensive investigation." His office will interview the witnesses before Spota decides whether he will consent to a hearing seeking a new trial.

"I think it'll be interesting to see what these people have to say," Spota said. "Real interesting."

To make sure the investigation is as independent as possible, Spota said it will be directed by newly hired Assistant District Attorney Leonard Lato, a former federal prosecutor with no prior ties to the district attorney's office. The prosecutor who tried the case, John Collins, is now chief of Spota's Homicide Bureau. Collins declined to comment.

Harris' statement dovetails with another sworn statement from Karlene Kovacs of St. James. In 1991, she told defense investigators that an acquaintance, Joseph Creedon of Long Island, bragged about taking part in the murders, along with someone named Steuerman. Reached last night, Kovacs said she stood by her statement but declined to comment further.

Jerry Steuerman was a business partner of Seymour Tankleff. Martin Tankleff, who has served 13 years of a 50 years to life sentence, has long accused Steuerman of arranging his parents' murder because he owed money to Seymour Tankleff and was the last to leave a high-stakes poker game the night of the murders. Steuerman has never been charged with the crime and has denied involvement.

Both Harris and Kovacs passed polygraph tests earlier this year, court papers state. Spota said he will talk to both witnesses.

Creedon had signed a statement to police in 1989 saying Jerry Steuerman's son, Todd, had told him that Steuerman wanted to hire Creedon to cut out Martin Tankleff's tongue because he had been accusing him of the murders. Creedon said he turned down the assignment. He could not be reached yesterday.

Kovacs' statement was shown to then-Suffolk District Attorney James Catterson in 1991 by Tankleff's defense counsel Robert Gottlieb of Hauppauge. Prosecutors took no legal action as a result of their investigation.

Court papers say Tankleff's 1990 conviction should also be set aside because Gottlieb failed to effectively represent Tankleff. Gottlieb promised the jury at the start of the case that witnesses would testify about the close and loving relationship between Martin Tankleff and his parents, who police say were killed in part because their son was unhappy with a "crummy Lincoln" they had given him.

After Gottlieb failed to produce those witnesses, Collins pointed out the omission to jurors. Gottlieb also failed to put on witnesses to testify about how police could have elicited a false confession from Tankleff, court papers say. Tankleff gave an incriminating statement to police after several hours of interrogation and after one detective falsely told him that his father had remained alive long enough to name Martin as his attacker.

Gottlieb declined to comment on the claim that he ineffectively represented Tankleff at trial, but said, "Marty is innocent. He should have never been convicted and whatever has to be done to get him out of jail, I support 1,000 percent."

He said he was told prosecutors pursued the Kovacs statement, but added, "There is no way in hell they pursued it to the extent warranted."

Barket said defense attorneys have not contacted Creedon. "I assume they will contact Mr. Creedon in due course," Barket said.

Copyright © 2003, Newsday, Inc.