Newsday editorial board member calls for new trial:
Tankleff Evidence Cries Out for a New Trial

By Bob Keeler
Bob Keeler is a member of Newsday's editorial board.

October 5, 2005

In a career of writing mostly about politicians, whose transgressions do not reach the level of homicide, I've also written thousands of words about men convicted of killing.

Sometimes I believed their claims of innocence, but sometimes I did not. One got out of prison partly as a result of what I wrote. Four are still guests of the state, which is fine by me.

In the Martin Tankleff murder case, I originally decided in 1988, from what I read in Newsday, that he had indeed killed his parents in their Belle Terre home. But now, after examining the briefs and interviewing people on both sides, including Tankleff and Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota, I believe that Tankleff's attorneys have produced enough fresh evidence to warrant a new trial.

That's a tough conclusion to reach, given my respect for Spota. Four years ago, I wrote the editorial endorsing him, and in most respects he has done a fine job. But I also wrote an editorial urging Judge Stephen Braslow, who conducted the new-evidence hearing under Section 440 of the state's Criminal Procedure Law, to disqualify Spota's office and appoint a special prosecutor. Braslow declined, but the fact remains: In private practice, Spota represented Det. James McCready, whose lie induced Tankleff to give a confession. He didn't sign it and quickly recanted. But it convicted him.

Although the physical evidence did not fit the confession, the jury clearly believed it. That was long before the rise of a vast body of knowledge on false confessions, now available to refute the common refrain: "No power on Earth could force me to confess to killing my parents, if I had not done it."

In Illinois, which has earned an unenviable reputation for wrongful convictions in capital cases, the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law reports that in 11 of the 18 cases of condemned men later exonerated, the conviction relied on a false confession, by either the defendant or a co-defendant.

"Most documented false confessions occur in murder cases," said Steven Drizin, the center's legal director. Drizin studied 125 proven false confessions, most in the past 10 years: 81 percent of them occurred in murder cases. A third involved kids under 18, a population at high risk of being induced into a false confession. Tankleff was 17 when police produced his confession.

Another leading expert on this issue, Richard Ofshe of the University of California, Berkeley, testified at the new-evidence hearing. He and his colleague, Richard Leo, have published the details of 60 cases of false confessions.

But it doesn't take an expert to read the confession and see how phony it seems: A 17-year-old who had everything somehow "confessed" to police that he killed his parents over such matters as his failure to set up a card table on time and his anger at having to drive a "crummy Lincoln." Despite the rage that supposedly led him to these crimes, he put the fury on hold and set his alarm clock to wake up for murder. Right.

Content with this imperfect confession, police did not do nearly enough to investigate someone with a far better motive: Jerry Steuerman, the business partner who owed Seymour and Arlene Tankleff hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The jurors heard from Steuerman, who soon after the murders faked his death, shaved his beard, fled to California and assumed an alias. But they didn't hear the parade of witnesses developed since then who have testified about the role in the Tankleff murders of Joseph Creedon, an enforcer for Steuerman's son Todd, who sold drugs from the family's bagel stores. Assistant District Attorney Leonard Lato called the witnesses misfits - odd talk for a prosecutor who routinely uses the testimony of criminals. But some of the witnesses buttressing the story of Creedon's involvement in the crimes are not criminals at all.

Now, Creedon's son, Joseph John Guarascio, 17, swears in an affidavit that his father admitted the murders to him.

Surely, Braslow can't ignore all of this. Even if the judge totally rejects the evidence and denies a new trial, the Tankleff case is not going to go away. It will remain a lingering question mark floating over the criminal justice system in Suffolk County for years to come.

Copyright 2005 Newsday Inc.