Legal Network and Defense Lawyers Join Effort to Win Appeal for Son in L.I. Couple's Death

New York Times

April 21, 2006


The continuing effort to win an appeal for a Long Island man convicted of killing his parents has drawn new support that includes court filings by an international network of legal groups focused on freeing innocent prisoners, a national association of defense lawyers and an expert on false confessions.

The advocates said that an appeal for Martin H. Tankleff could lead to significant precedents on wrongful convictions, false confessions and other issues.

Critics have called the case a miscarriage of justice, but these groups are the first to enter the proceedings formally. Some groups spoke out on the case for the first time and some are taking the unusual step of seeking amicus curiae, or "friend of the court," status.

The Tankleff lawyers said the groups had volunteered their help. Their statements were attached to a motion, filed on Monday in the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court in Brooklyn, asking permission to appeal a Suffolk County judge's decision in March that upheld the convictions.

"We've taken the unusual step of writing a letter along with our motion because the facts of this case are so strong, and because the lower-court ruling that denied Martin Tankleff a new trial was so misguided and troubling," said Barry C. Scheck, a co-founder of the Innocence Project at the Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, which has helped overturn more than 100 convictions.

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and its state branch wrote: "Like many bar associations and lawyers around the nation, we have carefully monitored the proceedings in Suffolk County Court." The group said the issues were so unusual "that they are of state and even national importance."

Seymour and Arlene Tankleff were fatally slashed and clubbed in their home overlooking Long Island Sound in 1988. Martin Tankleff, then 17, was charged that day and convicted in 1990.

The main evidence was a disputed police-written confession that he never signed and promptly disavowed. In their initial questioning, the police later acknowledged, they lied about evidence, telling Mr. Tankleff that his father had awakened at the hospital and identified him as the attacker. Early appeals over the confession failed.

A new appeal starting in 2004 presented new evidence from some 20 witnesses accusing the slain father's embittered business partner of organizing a crew of criminals, whom they named, to do the killings. One of the men named said he was the getaway driver; one witness linked the partner to the homicide detective in the case, who denied any connection.

But the Suffolk judge, Stephen Braslow, rejected the new evidence as unreliable, inadmissible hearsay, belatedly introduced or reprising issues rejected in prior appeals. The advocates say the judge ignored evidence identifying the real killers, hearsay rules, prosecutorial conflicts of interest, the detectives' conflict, police corruption involving dubious confessions, possible DNA evidence and expertise on false confessions.

Juries convict innocent people "because false confessions are counterintuitive; most jurors simply cannot imagine that they would ever confess to a crime they did not commit," Steven A. Drizen wrote for the Innocence Network, an affiliation of 33 groups in the United States, Canada and Australia. Suffolk's assistant district attorney opposing the appeal, Leonard Lato, said it did not raise new issues, and he noted that the prior appeals had been denied.