Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content

Martin Tankleff

Other New York False Confession Cases
About 6 a.m., on September 7, 1988, 17-year-old high school senior Martin Tankleff awoke to discover his adoptive parents had been attacked in their home in Belle Terre, on Long Island, New York. His mother, Arlene, was dead on the bedroom floor. She had been bludgeoned, stabbed, and her throat was slit. His father, Seymour was in a chair in his study. Though severely beaten and his throat was slit, he was still alive.

Tankleff called police and when officers and emergency personnel arrived, Tankleff had blood on his hands. After the ambulance had departed, police took him in for questioning. He told that he believed Jerry Steuerman, his father’s business partner in a bagel store, was somehow responsible. Steuerman had been at the home for a poker party whose participants included Belle Terre Mayor Vincent Bove. According to Bove, the game started about 8 p.m. and kept playing until about 3 a.m.

After about two hours, Detective James McCready left the interrogation room. When McCready returned, he told Tankleff that his father had awakened at the hospital and identified him as the 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. However, after a defense lawyer arrived, Tankleff did not 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.

Police ruled out Steuerman as a suspect. A week after the attack, his car was found in a restaurant parking lot with the engine running and the driver’s door open. According to a report in Newsday, there were notes in the car indicating Steuerman was going to commit suicide. Two weeks later, he surfaced in California. Steuerman said a family pressures combined with the attack prompted him to disappear in a way that his family would be provided for with a $500,000 life insurance policy. He adopted an alias and shaved his beard

In December 1988, the estate of Seymour Tankleff filed a lawsuit against Steuerman claiming he owed more than $900,000.

In late spring 1990, Tankleff went on trial in Suffolk County Court. Among the witnesses was Steuerman who testified said that he had left New York because of media reports that Tankleff was blaming him. Steuerman 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 and eight days of jury deliberation, Tankleff was convicted of two counts of second-degree murder.

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.

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. She would testify at an evidentiary hearing that “a Steuerman” was involved, although it wasn’t clear if she was referring to Jerry Steuerman or his son, Todd, who was a known drug dealer.

Eventually, the defense assembled more than 20 witnesses which they contended showed that Jerry 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.

Meanwhile, evidence surfaced that McCready, the lead detective who falsely told Tankleff his father named him as the attacker, prompting Tankleff to confess and then immediately recant, had come under investigation for perjury. 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.

At a hearing in July 2004, Suffolk County Judge Stephen Braslow declined to grant Harris immunity from prosecution. Harris invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, and refused to testify.

Among the witnesses called by the defense at the hearing was 17-year-old Joseph Guarascio, the son of Creedon. Guarascio testified that he lived with Creedon until he was six years old, at which time he moved with his mother, sister, and stepfather out of New York. Guarascio testified that, during a visit with Creedon, he asked, "Dad, did you really do [the Tankleff murders]?" According to Guarascio, the "seriousness" with which Creedon responded "[y]es, I did it," was "scary."

Guarascio testified that Creedon told him that Jerry Steuerman and his son, Todd, had been waiting outside of the Tankleff home and signaled Creedon. Creedon and Kent entered the house through a window, while Harris remained outside. Creedon choked Seymour Tankleff with a bicycle brake-line stripped of the plastic and hit him on the head with a .38-caliber pistol. Kent stabbed Arlene Tankleff. While inside the Tankleff home, Creedon and Kent looked into Martin Tankleff’s room and saw him sleeping, Guarascio testified.

Guarascio then said Creedon and Kent left the Tankleff home, but Creedon returned through the back door to retrieve a piece of metal pipe. As Harris drove them away, Harris threw the pipe out of the car window. Harris, Creedon, and Kent then went to a friend's house, where Creedon and Kent burned their own clothing in the basement, Guarascio testified.

According to Joseph, Creedon told him that he was still in touch with Jerry Steuerman. Further, Joseph testified that Creedon stated to him that "he [Creedon] paid a hundred thousand dollars [to Detective James McCready] to keep [Creedon's] name out of it." Creedon, however, testified that he never met Jerry Steuerman or spoke with him. Creedon also denied ever admitting to anyone that he was involved in the Tankleff murders. According to Creedon, he never killed anyone, and had never been to Belle Terre.

On March 17, 2006, Suffolk County Court Judge Stephen Braslow denied the petition for a new trial, saying the defense evidence “consisted mainly of testimony from a cavalcade of nefarious scoundrels.” The judge declared, “After thoroughly reviewing this matter, this court reaches the same conclusion that the jury reached…and every state appellate court and federal court that has reviewed the case, and that is that Martin Tankleff is guilty of murdering his parents.”

Tankleff’s trial defense attorney, Robert Gottlieb, declared, “There’s no way in hell that he should have been convicted…and there’s no way in hell he should not have been granted a new trial today.”

“I think the bottom line for Marty Tankleff is that there is no justice for him in Suffolk County,” said Barry Pollack, another defense attorney. “The good news for Marty is that we’re now going to get out of Suffolk County.” Pollack said he would seek permission from a state appellate court in Brooklyn to further appeal.

That request was granted and 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.

“The County Court completely disregarded a crucial fact which is pivotal to our determination,” the appellate court declared. “Namely, many of the witnesses who testified at the… hearing were unrelated to each other, and their genesis as witnesses was separated by both space and time…Notably, although clearly not connected to one another, each of those witnesses implicated Creedon and/or Jerry Steuerman in the Tankleff murders.”

The appellate court added, ‘Moreover, a court must view and evaluate all of the evidence in its entirety. In its determination as to the ‘impact of evidence unavailable at trial, a court must make its final decision based on the likely cumulative effect of the new evidence had it been presented at trial.’”

“In this case, the County Court failed in this regard,” the appellate court said. “Instead, it erroneously applied both a narrow approach and methodology in evaluating the evidence. It appears that the 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.”

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. in 2018, Suffolk County settled for $10 million.

In 2014, Tankleff graduated from Touro Law Center and subsequently passed the New York bar exam. He was sworn in to practice law in New York in February 2020.

– Maurice Possley

Report an error or add more information about this case.

Posting Date:  Before June 2012
Last Updated: 9/13/2022
State:New York
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1988
Sentence:50 to Life
Age at the date of reported crime:17
Contributing Factors:False Confession, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No