December 24, 2007
With L.I. Murder Conviction Voided, the Same Old Question: Who Did It?

The same questions asked nearly two decades ago when Arlene and Seymour Tankleff were slashed and bludgeoned in their waterfront home on Long Island are being asked anew today:

Who killed them, and why did the authorities fail to investigate Mr. Tankleff’s embittered business partner, Jerard Steuerman, as a possible suspect?

The authorities focused instead on the Tankleffs’ son, Martin, who was 17 at the time of the 1988 murders. He was convicted in 1990 and has been imprisoned ever since, nearly half his life.

But on Friday, the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court in Brooklyn overturned those verdicts and granted Mr. Tankleff a new trial. The court cited the “cumulative effect” of extensive new evidence gathered by his investigator accusing a band of ex-convicts of acting in concert with Mr. Steuerman.

Mr. Tankleff, now 36, expects to be released on bail at the end of this week.

The Suffolk County district attorney’s office says it may appeal the ruling, but will retry Mr. Tankleff if the ruling stands. Despite his demands for a new inquiry, the prosecutors said they would not reopen the case to investigate Mr. Steuerman and the ex-convicts.

“That’s not going to happen,” Leonard Lato, an assistant district attorney, said this weekend. Referring the appellate ruling, he said: “Has this changed our theory of the murderer to someone other than Tankleff? No. The Appellate Division didn’t say these other guys did it. All it said was: If the jury had all this other evidence, Tankleff probably would have been acquitted.”

Mr. Tankleff’s supporters contend there has been more than a reasonable doubt from the start, when the police arrived at the murder scene in Belle Terre and Mr. Tankleff told them to pursue Mr. Steuerman.

“Marty said it, I said it, the lawyers said it, we all said it, everybody said it,” recalled Ron Falbee, Mr. Tankleff’s cousin and a family spokesman.

Mr. Steuerman’s possible motives were clear. Seymour Tankleff was demanding repayment of a $500,000 debt, and they were fighting over control of their expanding chain of Strathmore bagel shops. Mr. Steuerman also had opportunity, attending a late poker game at the Tankleff home the night of the murders.

But the lead detective, K. James McCready, has said that he immediately focused on Martin Tankleff and never considered Mr. Steuerman.

The police declined Mr. Tankleff’s offer to be polygraphed. During the interrogation, the detective claimed that the wounded father had awakened at the hospital and named his son as the attacker. That was not true, the detective later acknowledged. But Mr. Tankleff said he began to wonder if he had “blacked out” and theorized about having committed the crimes, using a barbell and kitchen knife as weapons and attacking his parents while he was naked, then showering to wash off the blood.

The detective wrote a confession, and though Mr. Tankleff promptly repudiated it and never signed it, he was arrested. Later testing failed to substantiate the disputed confession, finding no blood on the supposed weapons or in the shower drain.

Doubts about Mr. Steuerman grew a week later. As the elder Mr. Tankleff still lay unconscious, Mr. Steuerman left suicide notes and vanished. He shaved his beard, changed his hairpiece and fled to California under a pseudonym. Eventually Detective McCready tracked him down and returned him to Long Island — not as a suspect, but as a witness.

At the trial, Mr. Steuerman angrily denied involvement in the murders. He has since moved to Florida and kept a low profile. A woman answering the phone at his home on Saturday and identifying herself as his wife said they declined to comment.

More doubts about the case arose in the last four years as Mr. Tankleff’s investigator, Jay Salpeter, turned up new witnesses. The first was Glenn Harris, who said he had been recruited by Joseph Creedon to drive him and Peter Kent to the Tankleff home that night. Under oath, Mr. Creedon and Mr. Kent have denied guilt. Mr. Creedon’s lawyer, Anthony LaPinta, reiterated that denial on Friday. Lawyers for Mr. Kent and Mr. Harris did not immediately respond to messages left by phone on Saturday.

But several people testified, as part of Mr. Tankleff’s appeal, that Mr. Creedon and Mr. Kent had privately admitted their involvement. One witness was Mr. Creedon’s own son, who quoted his father as saying that Mr. Steuerman was at the Tankleff house and signaled the killers to enter, and that Detective McCready was paid off. Two other witnesses also linked Mr. Steuerman to Mr. McCready as acquaintances.

Mr. McCready, who has since retired, has steadfastly denied any payoff or other wrongdoing and swore on the stand that he had not known Mr. Steuerman.

After sporadic hearings in Suffolk County Court, Judge Stephen L. Braslow rejected the new evidence last year, calling the witnesses “nefarious scoundrels.” But his decision was overturned by the appeals court, saying he had erred in his blanket dismissal and his failure to consider the volume of matching material from diverse witnesses.

Fully rectifying the Tankleff case requires three steps, said Scott Christianson, a former official in three state law enforcement agencies and author of a book on wrongful convictions. The evidence calls for Mr. Tankleff’s exoneration, prosecution of the other suspects and a formal inquiry into Suffolk law enforcement’s mishandling of the case, he said. “It’s much more egregious than the Duke University case,” he said, referring to the students who were charged with rape and then exonerated.

The prospect of a new trial for Mr. Tankleff has buoyed his supporters. “Bring it on,” said Mr. Falbee.

Mr. Tankleff’s team says the odds have reversed since the 1990 trial, when the jury took a week to convict, based mainly on the disputed confession. Since then, no new evidence has emerged against Mr. Tankleff.

“Now you have all that new academic scholarship on false confessions,” said Bennett L. Gershman, a Pace University law professor, “and then you have all this mountain of evidence on the other suspects.”

One Tankleff lawyer, Barry J. Pollack, said: “The original jury struggled with this case, without having any of the new evidence. Now, any reasonable jury would find Marty not guilty in a heartbeat.”

The prosecutors acknowledged the challenge. “It becomes difficult for the prosecution,” the Suffolk district attorney, Thomas J. Spota, said on Saturday. “There’s no doubt about that.”