NEWSDAY EDITORIAL:  The Tankleff case: New testimony should make it easy for judge to decide about new trial

Newsday, December 28, 2005

Now is the time for Judge Stephen Braslow to decide whether to order a new trial for Martin Tankleff. Though more witnesses may come forward, the vividly exculpatory testimony of Joseph Guarascio last week was a proper line of demarcation, an exclamation point, a good place to stop hearing testimony, take a breath and render a decision.

In one sense, it won't be easy for Braslow, because this is not just about one young man convicted of murdering his parents in 1988. It's also a stubborn scar of a nastier era of Long Island jurisprudence, when Suffolk homicide detectives relied far too much on confessions, as a Newsday series and a state investigation showed. So, to grant Tankleff a new trial is, in effect, to call that system into question again, because it was Tankleff's unsigned and quickly retracted confession that led a jury to convict him and a judge to send him away to state prison.

In another sense, Guarascio's testimony made Braslow's burden easier. Braslow did the right thing in reconvening the months-long hearing under Section 440 of the state's Criminal Procedure Law, which governs motions for a new trial, based on new evidence. Once the Tankleff defense team obtained an affidavit from Guarascio, it became imperative that he tell his story in open court, so prosecutors could cross-examine him and Braslow could hear him in person, observe his demeanor, gauge his truthfulness.

What Guarascio said on the stand was that his father, Joseph Creedon, admitted that he and an associate killed Seymour and Arlene Tankleff. Beyond that, Guarascio said, his father told him that he paid $100,000 to James McCready, the detective who elicited the confession from Tankleff by telling him a lie. Guarascio said Creedon told him that what he wanted from McCready was "to keep his name out of it."

In cross-examination, prosecutor Leonard Lato failed to shake Guarascio. But he asked the boy, without reference to any testimony, whether he learned Tankleff "was buying, and you decided to sell." Braslow ordered that stricken. Whatever the judge thinks of earlier witnesses, if he rejects Lato's dark hint and decides that Guarascio, 17, is motivated only by a desire to do the right thing, to tell the truth about events that shook Tankleff's life when he was also only 17, Braslow will have a fairly easy decision after all.

Copyright 2005 Newsday Inc.