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Murder charges dropped in Tankleff killing

After 17 years in jail, an entrepreneur's son is cleared in a grisly double murder.

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NEW YORK (FORTUNE Small Business) -- After 17 years in prison, Martin Tankleff has been set free and will not face a retrial for the 1988 murders of his parents.

At the time of the murders, Tankleff's father was involved in a dispute with the business partner with whom he ran a chain of local bagel shops.

Tankleff's conviction was vacated last month by the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court, and he was released on a $1 million bail pending a new trial.

Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota announced late Wednesday that he will not pursue a retrial. While new evidence uncovered since Tankleff's original trial prompted the appellate court's unanimous decision to overturn Tankleff's conviction, Spota said his own decision to drop charges was based on legal technicalities.

At a press conference Thursday, friends, family and his pro bono legal team stood beside Martin Tankleff, 36, to express their satisfaction that the charges had been dismissed after a fight that lasted nearly two decades.

"While this came twenty years too late, this is a great day for Marty, for his family, for the people of Suffolk county, and a great day for justice," said Barry Pollack, a lawyer from Kelley Drye & Warren LLP who has represented Tankleff for more than 12 years. "Marty, finally, after twenty years, is a free man."

A grisly killing

Tankleff's parents, Seymour and Arlene Tankleff, were found bludgeoned and slashed to death in their Belle Terre, N.Y., home on the morning of Sept. 7, 1988. Tankleff, then 17, was taken in by police as a suspect. Questioned without a lawyer present and told that his father had awakened and accused him of the crime - a lie, but a legal interrogation tactic - Tankleff offered a rambling, confused confession that was later used to convict him. Police asked Tankleff to give them a written statement and videotaped confession; a family lawyer arrived and stopped the questioning before that began. Tankleff quickly disavowed his verbal confession.

Since that June 1990 conviction, which brought a sentence of 50 years to life imprisonment, Tankleff has maintained his claim of innocence and fought relentlessly from his prison cell to clear his name. A team of supporters have assisted him, including Barry Scheck of The Innocence Project, a national litigation and public policy organization, and Jay Salpeter, a New York City detective turned private investigator.

In late 2003, Tankleff's attorneys filed a motion asking a judge to vacate his conviction based on new evidence uncovered by Salpeter that appeared to implicate Seymour Tankleff's business partner, Jerry Steuerman, in the murders. Steuerman has never been charged in connection with the crime, and has steadfastly maintained that he was not involved.

At the time of Seymour Tankleff's death, Steuerman owed Tankleff several hundred thousand dollars and was at odds with him over business deals involving several Long Island bagel shops that they jointly owned, according to court testimony. Steuerman was the last person to leave a card game at the Tankleff house on the night of the crime, and he aroused further suspicion with his actions after the murders, which included flying to Los Angeles under a pseudonym, shaving his beard and getting a new hair weave to change his appearance. At Tankleff's trial, Steuerman testified that his actions were a reaction to being overwhelmed with stress from his cash flow troubles, his wife's recent death, and the trauma of his business partner's murder.

After Martin Tankleff's conviction, Salpeter unearthed further evidence that seemed to link Steuerman to the crime. While Tankleff's motion for a new trial was eventually denied in 2006, his legal team appealed, leading to the state Supreme Court's ruling that the new evidence was convincing enough to warrant a new trial.

In their Dec. 18 decision, the appellate judges noted that new testimony from several unrelated witnesses, taken after Tankleff's original trial, apparently connects Steuerman and several associates to the Tankleff killings.

"It appears that the [Suffolk] County Court never considered that the cumulative effect of the new evidence created a probability that, had such evidence been received at the trial, the verdict would have been more favorable to the defendant," the appellate judges wrote in their ruling.

Released on bail on Dec. 27, Tankleff yesterday got the news he's spent years seeking: an announcement that all charges against him had been dropped.

A legal technicality

Spota's decision to end his prosecution of Tankleff was rooted in legal issues. In 1990, Tankleff was found guilty of the intentional murder of his father and of killing his mother with depraved indifference. Legal changes since then have changed the threshold for a verdict of depraved indifference, and Tankleff could not be retried on that charge, Spota said. Because Tankleff was found innocent of the intentional murder of his mother, double jeopardy prevents him from being retried for her killing.

Trying Tankleff for the sole remaining charge, the intentional murder of his father, would be almost impossible, according to Spota, because any evidence regarding Arlene Tankloff's murder would likely have to be excluded from the trial.

"This includes reference to his mother's murder in his confession and all forensic evidence that relates to her murder and links her murder to Seymour's, and both murders are surely linked," Spota said. "I believe that attempting to try half the case against Tankleff is futile and I will not do it."

Of the theories presented by the Tankleff legal team regarding other suspects in the murder, such as Steuerman and his associates, Spota dismissed them as "not supported by the credible evidence." But he said that he would request that Gov. Eliot Spitzer appoint a special prosecutor "to resolve any residual doubts with respect to the potential prosecution of other individuals."

The Tankleff case has wider implications for public policy on interrogation techniques, according to Scheck of The Innocence Project, which has worked with other victims of wrongful convictions based on false confessions.

Scheck said he hoped that the case will encourage the state of New York to require the videotaping of police interrogations. The New York State Assembly passed a bill to that effect, but negotiations to push it through the state Senate are stalled.

"This is a bill whose time has come. And it's going to be Marty Tankleff's case that gets it passed," Scheck said, suggesting that if Tankleff's original 1988 interrogation had been videotaped, he would not have been convicted.

Meanwhile, Martin Tankleff is enjoying his freedom for the first time in 17 years. He said he plans to finish his college education, and is considering going to law school.

"I look forward to doing future things," he said at a press conference Thursday. "Literally, I've got a lot to do."

Asked about his anger towards the men responsible for his parents murder, Tankleff said: "I look forward to the day they'll stand in my shoes in prison for twenty years." To top of page

Silenced Partner?: FSB's 2004 investigation of how business dealings may have led to the Tankleff's murders.
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