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The New York Times
Long Jailed in Killings Son Tells of Ordeal
December 5, 2004
Long Jailed in Killings, Son Tells of His Ordeal
By BRUCE LAMBERT
EAST MEADOW, N.Y., Dec. 2 - He is no longer the slight 17-year-old with the thick shock of black hair who was charged in 1988 with beating and stabbing his parents to death in their waterfront home on the North Shore of Long Island.
Today Martin Tankleff is 33, with glasses and thinning hair. His muscular forearms have been built by years of exercise in prison, after a jury found him guilty in 1990 and he was sentenced to 50 years to life. By his count he has spent "close to 5,300 days" behind bars.
That verdict, though, came after a confession that Mr. Tankleff never signed and that he immediately disavowed. The case has been widely questioned by lawyers, judges, scholars, journalists and crime buffs. Some professors teach the case as a textbook example of a miscarriage of justice.
Mr. Tankleff, who insists he is innocent, is speaking out as hearings resume Monday in Suffolk County Court on his effort to overturn the convictions.
"First my parents were taken from me, and then my life was taken from me," Mr. Tankleff said in an interview at the Nassau County jail here. "I lost my life. There's so much I've missed over the years that I can never get back. The only thing I can get back now is my freedom."
Still, he expressed optimism, saying he was buoyed by extensive new evidence in the hearings. The evidence, presented in court by the Tankleff lawyers in recent months, supports Mr. Tankleff's accusation that his father's business partner in three bagel stores, Jerard Steuerman, was behind the murders. Mr. Steuerman did not respond to several messages left seeking comment. But at the trial he testified that he was not involved in the killing.
In the jailhouse interview, Mr. Tankleff appeared relaxed, amiable, animated. He was serious, but his tone was not heated. Asked if he felt cheated out of young adulthood, he said, "Cheated is a huge understatement."
Inmates and guards are supportive, he said, and he has tried to make the best of his incarceration. He has mopped floors, attended classes to earn his associate's degree in liberal arts and spent long hours as an "unofficial paralegal" in prison law libraries in upstate New York researching his case and helping others. Asked whether the law libraries were adequate, he replied wryly, "I'm still here."
One of his lawyers, Bruce A. Barket, says Mr. Tankleff knows his own case better than anyone else and is a vital player in his defense, dwelling on every detail.
For example, Mr. Tankleff said, if Mr. Steuerman had really left the Tankleff house before the attacks, as he claimed, the father, Seymour, would have gone through the routine of locking the doors, setting the burglar alarm and turning off the lights. But Mr. Tankleff said that when he woke up and discovered the bodies, none of those things had been done.
A focal issue in the case has been Mr. Tankleff's persona. In interviews, the lead detective in the case, James McCready, said he immediately suspected Mr. Tankleff because he was unemotional at the murder scene. Even some Tankleff supporters say that at the trial, he came across the same way, until the guilty verdicts came in, when he crumpled.
"I was always taught that during difficult times you put your emotions aside and deal with the business at hand," Mr. Tankleff said. Mr. Barket said that Mr. Tankleff remained calm even when hearing vital new evidence dug up by their private investigator, Jay Salpeter. "You'd think he'd be jumping up and down and cheering," Mr. Barket said. "It's just the way he is, his personality."
Mr. Tankleff's voice does not rise in anger or bitterness, even when he insists on his innocence. "We said all along that eventually one day the truth is going to come out," he said. "For 16 years I've been saying Steuerman was involved, and 16 years later we've developed the evidence."
He added, "I'm hopeful that the judge sees what everybody else sees, that I'm innocent."
But the Suffolk County district attorney, Thomas J. Spota, remains equally adamant that Mr. Tankleff is guilty, and prosecutors have yet to present their case before Judge Stephen L. Braslow, who will decide whether to vacate the verdicts.
The convictions stemmed largely from a disputed confession. Detective McCready has always acknowledged he told Mr. Tankleff that his father had awakened at the hospital and identified his son as the attacker, although that never happened.
The detective also told Mr. Tankleff he must have attacked his parents but blocked the memory. Mr. Tankleff said that he started wondering whether he could have done it, and that the detective then wrote his own version of a statement, which Mr. Tankleff never signed and immediately renounced. But it was introduced at the trial.
Mr. Tankleff's supporters, including his parents' siblings, say the original evidence did not support the verdict. Mr. Tankleff has said he found the bodies when he awoke for school, then called 911 and gave first aid to his father. Despite evidence of a struggle, Mr. Tankleff had no scratches or bruises, nor any blood or skin scrapings under his nails. The weapons cited in the confession, a kitchen knife and a barbell, were both clean. The police declined Mr. Tankleff's offer to take a polygraph test. Later he arranged for two tests and passed both, his lawyers say.
Within hours of the attacks, the police arrested Mr. Tankleff but never questioned dozens of relatives and friends. They would have described "what kind of kid I was," he said, and his warm feeling for his parents.
"We had a wonderful relationship," he said. "I had nothing to do with their murders. I wasn't this cold-hearted person that could kill someone." For example, on the day of the attacks, he said, he had planned to meet with fellow students at his high school in Port Jefferson to raise scholarship money in honor of two classmates killed in a car accident.
In interviews, the relatives and friends also said they would have told investigators about Mr. Steuerman, who had both motive and opportunity. He owed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Seymour Tankleff, who was demanding that he pay up, and they argued about it, according to witnesses at the trial.
The night of the attacks, Mr. Steuerman joined several other men at the Tankleff house for a poker game and was the last player there. He says he left before the attacks and had nothing to do with them. But several days later, with Seymour Tankleff in a coma, Mr. Steuerman staged his own suicide and fled to California, shaving his beard and adopting an alias.
Yet the police said they never investigated him as a suspect because they were confident they had solved the case with Mr. Tankleff's arrest.
Describing the growing tension with Mr. Steuerman in the weeks before the attacks, Mr. Tankleff said, "I'd heard my parents talk about their concerns and fears of Steuerman." His mother even wrote a note about her concerns and kept it in the safe at their home, he said.
Mrs. Tankleff's sister, Marcella Falbee, recalled her saying of Mr. Steuerman, "He's going to kill me yet." Mrs. Falbee said that her sister also described an incident in which Mr. Steuerman grabbed Seymour Tankleff, pulled him across a bagel shop counter and threatened, "I'm going to cut your throat." Friends also said that Seymour Tankleff told them he wanted to buy a gun to protect himself.
Such material was not entered into evidence at the trial because of issues like hearsay objections and a lack of proof that Mrs. Tankleff wrote the note in the safe, said Mr. Tankleff's original lawyer, Robert C. Gottlieb.
The new findings presented at the hearings center on the actions of a group of street criminals associated with Jerard Steuerman's son Todd, a convicted drug dealer. They were involved in assaults, shootings, burglaries, rape, extortion and various drug violations.
Three new witnesses have testified at the hearings that one of the associates told them he was involved in the murders. Two other witnesses testified that another criminal told them he was the driver who took two accomplices to and from the Tankleff house that night. Another ex-convict testified that he was recruited to attack an unnamed bagel shop partner but was foiled when the intended victim did not show up. Yet another told the court he was asked to join the group going to the Tankleff home that night but declined.
In the 1990 trial, prosecutors portrayed Mr. Tankleff as a spoiled teenager whose motive for killing his parents was resentment over having to drive what he had once called a "crummy old Lincoln," limits on his use of the family boat and his parents' requirement that a sitter be at the house when they were away.
Mr. Tankleff paints a different picture. "I got essentially everything I wanted as a kid," he said. "I was spoiled, but I wasn't a brat. I worked, too." He worked part time at the bagel stores and mowed the lawn at home, raked leaves, shoveled snow and helped his mother cook. He also said he was involved in his father's various insurance, gym and real estate ventures, among others, and even had a joint sports memorabilia business with him. .
He enjoyed his youth, Mr. Tankleff said. "It was a good upbringing, a well-rounded upbringing, that taught me the value of hard work." Some people have wondered whether greed could have motivated him to kill his parents, but Mr. Tankleff said he was well aware that his parents' wills barred him from his inheritance until he was 25. His conviction automatically precluded any inheritance.
Mr. Tankleff criticized Detective McCready, who befriended Mr. Tankleff's half sister, Shari Rother, during the trial. She and her husband were the only relatives to turn against Mr. Tankleff, and because of his conviction, she won his major share in the $3 million estate. Mr. McCready and Mr. Rother later opened a bar and restaurant near the courthouse. "McCready benefited financially from my conviction," Mr. Tankleff said.
Mr. McCready, now retired, has denied any impropriety. Ms. Rother has declined repeated requests for comment. Although his lawyer would not let him talk about the disputed confession, Mr. Tankleff did say he wished that the Suffolk police had turned on their tape recorders, so "we would all know what really happened in that interrogation room."
He voiced confidence of winning his freedom. When that happens, he said, "I could see myself working on some innocence project" to help others who are wrongfully convicted. "I understand that the law works but is not perfect - is far from perfect."