Appellate panel overturns Tankleff case conviction

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December 22, 2007

A state appeals court overturned the conviction of Martin Tankleff Friday on charges that he brutally murdered his parents as a teenager, setting up a potential sequel of a trial that riveted Long Island 17 years ago.

The unanimous ruling by four justices of the state Supreme Court's Appellate Division did not find Tankleff innocent in the 1988 deaths of his parents, Seymour and Arlene Tankleff. But it could lead to a jury hearing the evidence gathered by Tankleff's defense team implicating a drug debt enforcer and a former business partner of Seymour Tankleff's in the killings.

The "newly-discovered evidence" should not have been dismissed by Suffolk County Court Judge Stephen Braslow, who denied Tankleff's motion for a new trial in March 2006, the appellate court found.

Braslow "completely disregarded a crucial fact which is pivotal to our determination," Justice Reinaldo Rivera wrote in the decision, referring to the numerous, independent witnesses who testified.

In a March 2006 ruling, Braslow dismissed the new witnesses as a group of "nefarious scoundrels," many with extensive criminal histories. But the appellate court said Braslow "in effect, applied a blanket disqualification of all of the defendant's proffered evidence. ... [He] dismissed, outright, the possibility that witnesses with criminal records, drug addictions, and/or psychiatric issues may nevertheless be capable of testifying truthfully."

Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota said in a statement that he disagreed with the decision. He said arrangements would be made to bring Tankleff back to court soon for a bail hearing. His office declined to comment further, and it remained unclear if Tankleff would face another trial.

The ruling marked a long-sought goal for Tankleff, 36, who has maintained his innocence and filed numerous unsuccessful appeals. He learned of the ruling Friday in a phone call with his attorney, Bruce Barket of Garden City.

"Finally, justice starts to tilt towards us," Tankleff said, according to Barket.

"Nobody in our family ever, ever thought he did it and we're just happy that justice is finally happening," said Autumn Tankleff, his cousin.

During his years of appeals, at least 30 former prosecutors and the Innocence Project in Manhattan filed briefs in support of Tankleff.

"This is a great day for justice in the state of New York," said Innocence Project co-director Barry Scheck.

Tankleff was convicted of two counts of second-degree murder in 1990 and was sentenced to 50 years to life in prison. The killings shocked the region, both for their brutality and for where they took place - in a waterfront home in the exclusive village of Belle Terre. Tankleff's case later was studied nationally in the debate over false confessions.

Homicide Det. K. James McCready faked a phone call to himself while interrogating Tankleff, then told him - falsely - that his father had awoken from a coma and implicated him in the attack. Tankleff asked if it was possible that he did it while he was blacked out, and police told him that was possible. He then confessed, police said, but recanted right away and never signed a written confession.

The case began on Sept. 7, 1988, when Tankleff's parents - Seymour, 62, and Arlene, 54, - were found with their throats slit and bodies bludgeoned. Arlene was dead; Seymour survived another month before succumbing. Martin Tankleff was immediately a suspect. His motives, prosecutors said, were adolescent spite at his parents' control over his life and a desire to reap a $3 million inheritance.

At trial, Tankleff's attorneys accused Jerry Steuerman, a bagel store owner who owed nearly $500,000 to Seymour Tankleff and was the last man seen with him the night he died. Steuerman faked his own death and fled to California a week after the killings.

After Tankleff's appeals were exhausted, his defense team turned to Jay Salpeter, a private investigator whose three-year investigation unearthed the new witnesses who supported the allegations against Steuerman.

At hearings in 2004, the witnesses implicated Steuerman and an associate of his son Todd, Joseph Creedon. Prison inmate Glenn Harris signed an affidavit saying he drove Creedon to the Tankleffs' house the night of the killings. Creedon's son testified that Creedon told him he did it.

Steuerman did not return a phone message seeking comment. He has denied involvement. Through an attorney, Creedon denied responsibility. "Joseph Creedon is an innocent scapegoat," said Anthony La Pinta of Hauppauge.

Staff writers Anthony M. DeStefano, Alfonso A. Castillo and Zachary R. Dowdy contributed reporting to this story.

He's still in prison

The Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court overturned the murder conviction and sentence of Martin Tankleff, setting up the possibility of a retrial on charges he killed his parents.

The original indictment against Tankleff still stands. Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota did not say whether he would pursue a new trial against Tankleff. A trial date would not be set until after Tankleff's bail hearing and arraignment.

Spota said Tankleff will be brought back to Long Island for a bail hearing but he did not specify when. Tankleff's attorney, Bruce Barket, said it should occur in the next few days. Tankleff was released on $500,000 bail in 1988 before his conviction.