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New York Times
October 2, 2003
15 Years Later, Pushing to Clear His Name in Murder of Parents
By BRUCE LAMBERT
Fifteen years ago, Arlene Tankleff was slashed across the throat and bludgeoned to death, and her husband, Seymour, was mortally wounded in the middle of the night in their affluent Long Island home. Their son, Martin, 17, confessed, then recanted. But in 1990 he was convicted of their murders in a highly publicized trial that was featured on Court TV.
Ever since, he and the other surviving relatives have insisted that he did not kill his parents. Seymour Tankleff's brother, Norman, said that he never doubted the son's innocence. Mrs. Tankleff's sister, Marcella Falbee, said, "From the beginning, none of us ever believed he did this."
Now Martin Tankleff's supporters claim to have new evidence, obtained by a former New York City homicide detective, that they say points to the real culprits. His lawyers say they will file a motion today in Suffolk County Court to have his conviction vacated.
The current Suffolk County district attorney, Thomas J. Spota, said last night, "This office will conduct a fair and comprehensive investigation of the claims made by Mr. Tankleffs' attorneys."
The new evidence includes a statement from a man who says that he served as the getaway driver who took two accomplices to the Tankleff house that night for what he thought was a burglary. He said that he waited until they ran out, then drove them away - and that one of them later burned his clothes.
Mr. Tankleff and his lawyers say that those men were connected to Seymour Tankleff's estranged business partner, Jerry Steuerman, a bagel shop proprietor. He owed Seymour Tankleff hundreds of thousands of dollars and was having trouble paying, and they had arguments.
On the night of the attacks, Mr. Steuerman was in the Tankleff house for a poker game and was the last of the players to leave, according to official records in the case. After the crimes - and when Seymour Tankleff was clinging to life in the hospital - Mr. Steuerman withdrew money from a joint bank account with Mr. Tankleff, fled to California, adopted an alias and shaved his beard. Denying any involvement in the crimes, Mr. Steuerman later said that he had fled out of fear that he would be blamed. He then cooperated with the authorities, who said they wanted him as a prosecution witness and did not consider him a target of their investigation. At the 13-week trial in 1990, he testified, "I did not do this."
The conviction of Martin Tankleff, who has been serving the maximum prison sentence of 50 year years to life, hinged on his confession following hours of questioning directly after the crime by the Suffolk police, who arrived when he called 911 to summon help to the Tankleff home in Belle Terre.
In his account, Martin Tankleff said he was sleeping in his bedroom during the attacks and discovered his parents' bodies when he woke up in the morning to get ready for his first day as a high school senior.
Although Martin Tankleff immediately urged the police to investigate Mr. Steuerman and offered to take a polygraph test himself, they declined to do both. According to today's motion and other case records, the interrogators scoffed at his repeated denials of guilt as "ridiculous" and said that he had not cried enough to be credible. They suggested that he must have attacked his parents and blocked the memory.
They even said during the interrogation that his father had come out of his coma and identified his son as the attacker. In fact, the father, who had been bludgeoned in the head and stabbed in the throat, died weeks later without regaining consciousness or speaking. After confessing, Mr. Tankleff retracted his statement, saying he had been coerced while under emotional stress.
The prosecutors suggested various motives, including resentment over chores and driving restrictions, or even the lure of a $3 million family estate. His father was a retired insurance broker. But the relatives say the family was a loving one, and insisted there were no difficulties or other factors to implicate the son.
The lawyer who drafted the motion, Bruce Barket, said: "It's nightmarish to wake up and find your parents dead, then be accused of committing the murders and spend 13 years in jail for something you didn't do." The other defense lawyers are Stephen L. Braga, Jennifer M. O'Connor and Barry J. Pollack.
The basic facts argue for Mr. Tankleff's innocence, his lawyers say. If he really had wanted to get away with murder, they say, why did he call 911 and follow the operator's instructions to administer first aid to save his father?
Despite evidence of violent struggles, the son bore no injuries, case records show. None of his hair, blood or skin was found on or near his parents' bodies, nor was theirs found on him or in his room. Investigators did find rootless hairs on both victims that did not match hairs from them or their son. Mr. Steuerman wore a hair weave with rootless hairs, the lawyers said.
Although the confession said a dumbbell was used to beat the parents, it had no blood. Expert witnesses said the injuries appeared to be from a hammer and knife, which were not recovered. There were also glove prints, but no gloves were found. The driver said the passengers he drove to the Tankleffs' house had gloves, however. A muddy footprint found inside an open rear door of the house indicated an intruder, the defense lawyers said.
The former homicide detective hired to investigate for the defense, Jay Salpeter, said, "I've been around a while, and this is one of worst injustices I've seen." He found the driver, Glenn Harris, who is in prison on an unrelated burglary charge. He had nothing to gain by implicating himself, Mr. Salpeter said.
Another witness, Karlene Kovacs, said a man named Joseph Creedon told her that he was involved in the case. Mr. Creedon, who was identified by Mr. Harris as one of his passengers, told her that he and another man hid in the bushes behind the Tankleff house, ran to avoid being caught and had to get rid of their bloody clothes, the motion said.
Mr. Harris, Ms. Kovacs and Mr. Tankleff all passed polygraph tests about the truthfulness of their accounts, the lawyers say.
In addition, according to the motion, Mr. Creedon signed an affidavit saying that Mr. Steuerman's son, Todd, said his father wanted to hire Mr. Creedon to cut out the tongue of Martin Tankleff, then free on bail. Mr. Creedon said that when he declined, Todd Steuerman shot him in the arm, then offered him $10,000 to keep quiet about the incident.
Mr. Tankleff's conviction was previously appealed to two levels of state courts and two levels of federal courts on the claim that he was not warned of his rights before he confessed. He lost the appeals, but the rulings were complex. One federal court said his federal rights were not violated but indicated that stricter state standards were. However, the federal court said it could not enforce a state standard.
In a 3-to-2 state court ruling against Mr. Tankleff, the dissenters found an "absence of any other evidence connecting the defendant to the murders, except for the confession, which he disavowed."
Mr. Tankleff's new motion also argues that his original trial lawyer crippled the defense by failing to deliver on a promise to call relatives as witnesses to dispute prosecution claims that friction between Martin and his parents was a motive.
One relative who had been eager to testify, Mrs. Falbee, Mrs. Tankleff's sister, said that before the sentencing she pleaded with the judge, "Please don't take Martin from us."