About 6 a.m., on September 7, 1988, 17-year-old high school senior Martin Tankleff awoke to discover his parents had been attacked in their bed in their home on Long Island, New York. His mother, Arlene, was stabbed to death, but his father, Seymour, though severely beaten, was still alive.
Tankleff called police and after the ambulance had departed, police took him in for questioning because, with blood on his hands, they suspected he was involved.
The interrogation went on for hours, although Tankleff told the police that his father’s partner in a bagel store owed his father $500,000, had threatened his parents with violence and was the last person to leave the home the night before.
At one point, detective K. James McCready told Tankleff that his father had awakened at the hospital and identified him as his mother’s attacker. At that point, Tankleff said his father never lied and that perhaps he had blacked out and killed his mother.
He provided a possible, though inaccurate narrative of how it happened and was asked to sign the statement. Tankleff, however, refused to sign it and disavowed any involvement in the crime.
He was charged with killing his mother and attempting to kill his father—a charge that was changed to murder after his father died on October 6, 1988 without ever regaining consciousness.
By then, Seymour Tankleff’s business partner, Jerry Steuerman, had vanished.
In late spring 1990, Tankleff went on trial in Suffolk County District Court. Among the witnesses was Steuerman, who had been in the Tankleff home for a poker game and was the last to leave. After the crime, Steuerman withdrew money from a joint bank account with Tankleff, fled to California, adopted an alias and shaved his beard.
Eventually, Steuerman resurfaced and was called as a witness at the trial. He said that he had fled out of fear that he would be blamed. He testified, “I did not do this.”
The cornerstone of the prosecution case was Tankleff’s unsigned confession. On June 28, 1990, after a 13-week trial, Tankleff was convicted of both murders.
On October 23, 1990, he was sentenced to 50 years to life in prison.
The conviction was upheld by the Appellate Division New York State Supreme Court in December 1993 by a vote of 3 to 2. The dissenting judges said there was insufficient evidence to convict him.
Over the next 10 years, Tankleff obtained pro bono legal assistance and numerous appeals were filed in state and federal courts. Although he continued to lose, attorneys and investigators began assembling what they hoped would be a critical mass of evidence of his innocence.
In 2003, a private investigator tracked down Glenn Harris, who gave a sworn statement that he had driven two hit men, Joe Creedon and Peter Kent, to and from the Tankleff residence on the night of the crime. Harris said he did so at the behest of Steuerman. At a hearing in July 2004, Suffolk County Judge Stephen Braslow declined to grant Harris immunity from prosecution and so Harris invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and his testimony was not heard.
Over the next two years, more evidence was unearthed that began to corroborate Harris’s account.
Another witness, Karlene Kovacs, said Creedon told her that he was involved. She said Creedon told her that he and another man hid in the bushes behind the Tankleff house, ran to avoid being caught and had to get rid of their bloody clothes.
Meanwhile, evidence surfaced that McCready, the detective who obtained the alleged confession from Tankleff, had come under investigation for perjury. Further, the lead prosecutor in the case against Tankleff had a business relationship with Steuerman prior to the murders.
Eventually, the defense assembled more than 20 witnesses to paint a picture of that Steuerman orchestrated the murders.
One piece of new evidence was a bloody imprint on a sheet in Arlene Tankleff’s bedroom that appeared to be from a knife. No matching knife was found, suggesting that someone other than Martin Tankleff had taken it.
In addition, two witnesses came forward to say that McCready had been seen together with Steuerman prior to the murders. Other evidence showed that McCready, had violated police department rules by showing crime-scene photographs to unauthorized persons.
But on March 17, 2006, another petition for a new trial was denied following a hearing.
On December 18, 2007, the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court in Brooklyn unanimously overturned the convictions, ruling that if a jury heard the new evidence, it would probably acquit Tankleff.
Tankleff was released on December 27, 2007. The charges were dismissed on July 22, 2008.
In March 2009, Tankleff filed a federal civil wrongful conviction lawsuit against the State of New York and the Suffolk County police department and several officers, including McCready. In January 2014, the State of New York settled for $3.375 million.
– Maurice Possley