Marty Tankleff, free for good, speaks out

He served 17 years in prison
January 3, 2008 12:59:20 PM PST
Moments before a judge sentenced him to 50 years to life in prison, Martin Tankleff said the words he has repeated for almost two decades: "I stand before you innocent of this charge. I loved my parents. I did not kill them."His appeal fell on deaf ears that day in October 1990, and for many more days over the following 17 years as he languished in a prison cell.

Then a panel of judges last month overturned Tankleff's murder conviction in the deaths of his parents, citing possible evidence that a shady business associate may have had a role in the killings. On Wednesday, prosecutors said they would not retry Tankleff, making him a free man.

At a Manhattan news conference Thursday, Tankleff, now 36, thanked his legal team and relatives who stood by him. He spoke about getting a college education and perhaps attending law school. "I have a lot to do," he said. "Every day I got up in prison, I knew I wasn't alone in my fight. I had my aunts, my uncles, my cousins, and they're all still there."

His exoneration ended an extraordinary legal odyssey that included a coerced confession; a drawn-out appeal bankrolled by a team of high-powered lawyers who took the case pro bono; conspiracy theories about the identity of the real killers; and a quirk in New York law that ultimately caused the case to collapse.

Seymour Tankleff and his wife, Arlene, were found slain in their waterfront home in Belle Terre, a well-to-do enclave overlooking Long Island Sound, on Sept. 7, 1988, the morning Martin was to begin his senior year in high school. Arlene Tankleff was found bludgeoned in her bedroom; Seymour was stabbed in his study and died about a month later.

Detectives questioned the teenager at the home after he called 911 to report the attack. Later, they took him to police headquarters where they employed an interrogation tactic in which they falsely told him that his father had awakened from a coma and named him as the killer.

At that point, Tankleff wondered aloud if he might have "blacked out" and committed the crimes, adding "It's starting to come to me." The motive, he told police, was anger over a variety of slights, including being made to drive a "crummy old Lincoln." Tankleff almost immediately recanted the confession, refusing to sign what the officers had written.

From the day of his arrest through his trial - one of the nation's first televised on Court TV - Tankleff pointed to a business partner of his father who ran a string of Long Island bagel shops. Tankleff claimed the businessman, Jerry Steuerman, owed his father thousands and enlisted some local street thugs to commit the murders to escape his debt.

Steuerman denied the allegations and has always insisted he was not involved. Prosecutors and police never gave serious consideration to Steuerman as a suspect, despite his own bizarre behavior: Just days after the Tankleff killings he faked his own suicide and fled to California in a disguise.

Steuerman, who was the last person to leave the Tankleff home at about 3 a.m. on the morning of the killings after an all-night poker game, claimed his erratic behavior was the result of stress.

Tankleff's defense team filed numerous appeals, to no avail; in 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Tankleff's argument that the confession was tainted.

Finally, in 2003, his attorneys were granted a new hearing in Suffolk County, claiming they had a witness who would say he drove two men to and from the Tankleff house on the night of the slayings, and that one of them was later seen burning his clothes.

But that witness never testified, citing his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination. Other witnesses testified that they heard one of the men allegedly in the car that night - Joey "Guns" Creedon - confess he was involved.

Creedon, a career criminal who testified at the hearing that he had committed rape and assaults, has denied any involvement in the killings. Tankleff claimed he slept through the carnage.

Stephen Scaring, a leading Long Island defense attorney and former prosecutor, said the entire Tankleff saga was "an embarrassment to the system." He suggested justice might have been better served if a special prosecutor had been called in when Tankleff was granted a new hearing in 2003.

In 2006, a Suffolk County judge rejected Tankleff's appeal, claiming the bulk of the testimony was unreliable and referring to the witnesses as a "cavalcade of nefarious characters."

Tankleff had one more fight.

His attorneys went to the Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court. The judges ruled last month that it was "probable" that a new jury would render a different verdict.

The case was sent back to Suffolk County, where District Attorney Thomas Spota decided this week that a second trial would be difficult, at best.

His decision was driven largely because of changes to New York's second-degree murder law in the time since the original trial.

At that time, the jury was allowed to consider whether Tankleff committed "intentional murder" or "depraved indifference to human life." The jury found Tankleff guilty of intentional murder in his father's death and depraved indifference in the slaying of his mother.

But in the meantime, the depraved indifference standard has been thrown out. Double jeopardy laws prevent prosecutors from retrying Tankleff on the intentional murder count for his mother because the jury acquitted him of that charge. And without a case against Tankleff in his mother's death, a case in his father's death would have been tough to prove.

Spota said he would ask Gov. Eliot Spitzer to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Tankleff's claims that Steuerman or others were involved.

As for Tankleff, when asked what has enjoyed most about his newfound freedom, he responded: "Waking up as a free man, having a cup of coffee and watching the sun rise."