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Sundays With Marty
By MARC HOWARD
New York Times
February 19, 2006, Washington
LIKE most Americans, I was brought up to have deep respect for our judicial system.
But over the last 17 years since Martin Tankleff's arrest for the brutal murder of his parents, Seymour and Arlene Tankleff, I have learned about the all-too-human shortcomings of this system.
Though we were more acquaintances than close friends, Marty and I attended the same nursery, elementary, junior-high and high schools. I still vividly remember the confusion among our classmates on Sept. 7, 1988, the first day of our senior year, when news of the murders began to spread. I had no idea whether Marty was innocent or guilty, especially as details emerged and it became clear that this was a very strange case.
The only thing I could be sure of was that the cornerstone of the American justice system is the presumption of innocence. As the editor of the newspaper at Earl L. Vandermeulen High School in Port Jefferson, I wrote an editorial, concluding, perhaps na?vely: "We the editors of 'The Purple Parrot' believe in 'innocent until proven guilty.' We are far from convinced of Marty's guilt, and therefore presume him innocent."
Already, I was troubled by the prosecutors' single-minded focus on Marty, as well as the media's complete deference to the prosecutors. After all, Marty's father's business partner, Jerard Steuerman, who owed him more than $500,000, was the last person to leave the high-stakes poker game at the Tankleff house that ended in the wee hours of the morning of the murders. A week later, Mr. Steuerman faked his own death, only to be found in California with a new appearance and identity.
Yet prosecutors say that they never considered him a suspect. Instead, because there was no physical evidence linking Marty to the crime, the prosecutors' entire case was based on a much-disputed "confession" that Marty immediately disavowed and never signed.
I was away in college when Marty was tried, convicted and sentenced to 50 years in prison in 1990. Although I occasionally mentioned to friends that I knew a convicted murderer whom I believed was probably innocent, I have to admit that the case ? and Marty's plight ? became more and more distant for over a decade. After all, how could mistakes like this happen in America?
I took a renewed interest in the case about two years ago, when I heard that Marty's legal team had found evidence that might exonerate him. Since then, I have reviewed all aspects of this case from the original trial to the recent hearing with new evidence that might lead to a new trial. I have visited Marty in prison five times ? in fact, we've now become friends. When I see him, I am inspired by his optimism, his fortitude and the diligence with which he works on his case.
The American public is finally learning about wrongful convictions, as DNA evidence has proven that judges and jurors have convicted and incarcerated hundreds of innocent people ? with tens of thousands more, at a minimum, still languishing in prison.
The most remarkable similarity among these cases is the unwillingness of most district attorneys to consider ? much less admit ? that they can make mistakes. Even when a prisoner is cleared by DNA evidence, prosecutors tend to fight to maintain the conviction, often delaying that person's release from jail for years.
Marty Tankleff's case offers a textbook illustration of this backwards prosecutorial mentality, which is particularly pernicious in Suffolk County. From the beginning, the authorities considered the case closed once they had obtained their "confession." Back in 1988, little was known about the potential for, and frequency of, false confessions ? especially from distraught and impressionable juveniles.
And at that time, confessions were the norm in Suffolk, which boasted an astounding 94 percent confession rate in homicide cases, nearly double the national average of 48 percent. More recently, however, Richard Ofshe, a leading expert on false confessions, called Marty's confession "evidence of his innocence," since the details of his narrative do not at all match the crime scene.
Even more important are the remarkable recent developments implicating Mr. Steuerman and several of his criminal associates. Multiple and unacquainted witnesses have said that one of the real murderers admitted his involvement to them and another declared that he drove two men to the crime scene that night.
Not only did Suffolk's prosecutors refuse to investigate these new claims, they simply dismissed them as lies. Moreover, the district attorney's office has steadfastly opposed Marty's efforts to get DNA testing for the skin found under his mother's fingernails, despite repeated requests.
That all this could happen to Marty, who comes from an educated, white, upper-middle class background, has support from his family and receives pro bono assistance from first-rate lawyers and savvy communication consultants, suggests how common injustice like this is for people who don't come from privileged backgrounds.
In the version of American justice that I once believed in so strongly, prosecutors and judges would be eager to correct these mistakes in their pursuit of justice. That is, after all, their sworn mission. Instead they behave as if these cases threaten a self-protecting network that, at best, wants wrongfully convicted people like Marty Tankleff to quietly accept living the rest of their lives in prison.
Marc Howard is an assistant professor of government at Georgetown University.