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New York man likely to be freed on bail after 17 years in prison in slaying of parents
The Associated Press
Saturday, December 22, 2007
RIVERHEAD, N.Y.: A man imprisoned 17 years for the murder of his parents could be freed on bail within days as preparations are made for a new trial, a prosecutor said Saturday.
Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas J. Spota said he has decided not to fight to keep Martin Tankleff behind bars while prosecutors decide how to respond to an appeals court ruling that tossed out the 35-year-old inmate's 1990 conviction.
"Whatever cause of action I decide to take, Tankleff will not be in jail. I think that's only fair. He will be standing trial as a free man," Spota said.
Arrangements are being made to get Tankleff a bail hearing on Thursday, Spota said. He added that prosecutors are in talks with the defense team on setting a reasonable amount of bail that would allow for Tankleff's release.
Tankleff's attorney, Bruce Barket, praised the move, noting that prosecutors commonly take a harsher approach after a conviction has been overturned, and battle to keep a defendant imprisoned.
"It's a credit to the district attorney," Barket said.
A state appeals court said in a unanimous opinion, made public Friday, that new evidence raised the possibility that Tankleff's parents, Seymour and Arlene, might have been killed by someone else.
At the original trial, prosecutors argued that Tankleff, then 17, had become irritated by his parents over a series of household rules, and bludgeoned and stabbed them one night in 1988 at their home in Belle Terre.
Physical evidence tying the teen to the crime was lacking, but police detectives said they got Tankleff to confess through a ruse: They falsely told him his father had emerged from a coma and implicated him in the crime.
Tankleff, according to police, stammered "Could I have blacked out ... and done this?" and wondered aloud whether he could be "possessed." Then, investigators claim, he offered a gory account of how the killings happened.
Almost immediately, Tankleff reversed himself and said he couldn't have done it, but the confession was enough for a conviction.
In the years since, his lawyers hired private detectives to investigate a possibility that Seymour and Arlene Tankleff were murdered by a business partner and a hired thug.
The Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court said that effort turned up six witnesses who implicated the other men in the crime. Other courts had said the witnesses were not credible, but the appeals court said the issue should be put before a jury.
Speaking to reporters Saturday, Spota noted that the court had not exonerated Tankleff, and he said he disagreed with its findings. But he offered a neutral response when asked directly whether he believed Tankleff was guilty.
"I never said that Martin Tankleff killed his parents," said Spota, elected in 2001. "What I have consistently said is that I do not believe that the people that the Tankleff team has said killed these people did indeed kill them."
The defense team has long pointed the finger at a family business associate, Jerry Steuerman, and an ex-convict, Joseph Creedon, both of whom have denied having anything to do with the murders.
Prosecutors now face a high hurdle in reassembling the nearly two-decade old case, finding old witnesses and recovering evidence.
"It becomes difficult for the prosecution. There's no doubt about that," Spota said.
Associated Press Writer David B. Caruso in New York contributed to this report.