Tankleff case cries out for answers


Murder probe needs to be reopened to learn the truth - and what happened to justice


Scott Christianson is a former executive assistant to the New York State director of criminal justice and author of "Innocent: Inside Wrongful Conviction Cases."

April 21, 2006

Martin Tankleff's lawyers now have turned to the state Appellate Division to overturn Suffolk County Judge Stephen J. Braslow's decision not to grant their client a new trial. The drama is far from over.

Those who followed the latest hearings saw Tankleff's defense team marshal much more evidence against three career criminals - Joseph "Joey Guns" Creedon, Peter Kent and Glenn Harris - in the murder of Seymour and Arlene Tankleff in 1988 -than the prosecution has ever presented against the Tankleffs' son. That evidence indicated the murder was allegedly done at the behest of the Tankleffs' estranged business partner, Gerard Steuerman. But Martin Tankleff remains wrongfully convicted and imprisoned.

Citizens need to know why District Attorney Thomas J. Spota refused to step aside for a special prosecutor, although he had represented people involved in the Tankleff case as a private defense attorney. And what was Braslow thinking?

Tankleff, who was 17 at the time of the 1988 murders, was convicted in 1990 based in large measure on a questionable "confession" obtained by Det. James McCready, who at the time of the murders was a target of a state probe into Suffolk County police and prosecutors - although no charges were filed against him. In those days, Spota represented McCready.

Spota says that in 1983, his law firm represented Gerard Steuerman's son, Todd Steuerman, against charges of selling cocaine, and shortly after the murders, Spota's former longtime law partner, Gerard Sullivan, defended Gerard Steuerman in unspecified matters and defended Steuerman's son in another drug-dealing case. (There was evidence at a court hearing that relatives of the slain Tankleffs say the couple's dispute with Gerard Steuerman over his son's stake in one of their bagel stores was a major factor in their murders.)

Records show that Suffolk authorities had police reports about Steuerman-Creedon connections long before Tankleff went on trial, but McCready said publicly "Jerry Steuerman wouldn't hurt a fly" and Spota's office has denied there was any Steuerman-Creedon link despite a trail of contrary evidence in police department records.

Some of this documentation raises the question of why, for instance, Todd Steuerman wasn't prosecuted in the shooting and wounding of Creedon (the alleged leader of the Tankleff "hit team") in April 1989. At the time, Creedon gave police an affidavit saying he was shot by Todd Steuerman, a "drug dealer" who wanted him to "collect money," "wanted somebody whacked for $10,000," and suggested to Creedon that he should talk with Gerard Steuerman "about cutting Marty Tankleff's tongue out of his mouth." The DA's office allowed Todd Steuerman to quietly plead guilty to greatly reduced drug charges.

Other court papers reveal that Creedon told the district attorney's office about the shooting incident on June 2, 1989, but his statements were kept out of the Tankleff trial in 1990. Three months after Tankleff's conviction, Creedon signed another affidavit saying an assistant district attorney "clearly was attempting to have me back off my statement."

Spota was elected district attorney in 2001. In 2003, when Braslow ordered an evidentiary hearing in the Tankleff case, Spota selected as his investigator Walter Warkenthien, a former homicide detective who was one of those named along with McCready in the State Commission of Investigation's inquiry into Suffolk law enforcement. No charges were filed against him. To argue the case and conduct what he called an independent investigation, Spota hired Leonard Lato, a flamboyant former federal prosecutor.

As soon as the proceedings started, Tankleff's defense contended, Warkenthien began intimidating potential witnesses and Lato proceeded to dispute every pro-Tankleff witness, including Creedon's son, who testified that his father told him he had done the murders.

Tankleff's side acted like a prosecutor, identifying the killers, establishing a motive, finding the murder weapon and laying out the crime and its aftermath in graphic detail, whereas Lato responded like a defense attorney, by attacking defense witnesses and trying to raise reasonable doubt.

Judge Braslow would not grant immunity to Harris, prompting him to decline to testify about the murders. Braslow also refused to require a special prosecutor and denied Tankleff's bid to conduct advanced DNA tests on pieces of human skin scraped from Arlene Tankleff's fingernails after the attack. On every motion, Braslow ruled in favor of the district attorney's office and refused on legal grounds to recuse himself from the case.

The Tankleff case begs the question of what happens when officers of the court refuse to uphold justice. Somebody needs to not only reopen the case, but probe exactly what the truth is in this case.