This story was originally published in Newsday on Sept. 24, 2004
A Suffolk County Court judge yesterday denied a request by attorneys representing Martin Tankleff to appoint a special prosecutor to the case, a decision that could set back the drive to exonerate Tankleff of his 1990 conviction for murdering his parents.
It buoyed Suffolk prosecutors who say Tankleff was the sole killer, but angered and shocked Tankleff's relatives, who believe he is innocent of the gruesome Belle Terre murders.
Judge Stephen L. Braslow's 12-page decision was handed down nearly a month after defense attorneys Bruce Barket of Garden City and Barry Pollack of Washington filed a motion to have Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota removed from the case.
They argued that Spota cannot handle the case fairly because Spota or his former law firm had later represented on unrelated matters some key players in the case - the detective who extracted a controversial confession from Tankleff and two men who defense attorneys have implicated in the murder.
But Braslow said those apparent conflicts are not strong enough to remove Spota or Assistant District Attorney Leonard Lato from the case. "It takes more than the appearance of impropriety to relieve him of his duties in this case," Braslow wrote. "And what may appear to be the appearance of impropriety to the layman, or in a less formal setting, is not necessarily so in law."
Further, Braslow wrote that with no "substantial conflict," a special prosecutor cannot be appointed to replace Spota's office.
The decision pleased Lato, who is handling the ongoing evidentiary hearing that will determine whether Tankleff is granted a new trial.
"They had a good-faith basis to make the motion, but it didn't have any validity," Lato said. "They felt they had to make the motion and they had some good arguments but, in the end, they lost. To me, this really wasn't a close call."
The hearing, which began in Braslow's court in July, is being conducted because Tankleff's attorneys claim new evidence that has surfaced since the conviction exonerates Tankleff - or at least would likely persuade a new jury to deliver a different verdict. The hearing now will continue Oct. 4 in Riverhead.
Braslow's decision disappointed Tankleff's defense team and the relatives who support Tankleff in his attempt to free himself after being imprisoned for 14 years.
He is serving a sentence of 50 years to life for the Sept. 7, 1988, murders of Seymour and Arlene Tankleff.
"I think it's distressing," Barket said. "Not just for Marty, but the system of justice that we purport to have in Suffolk County."
In a statement, the Tankleff family said: "We are stunned, disappointed and outraged that the prosecutor was not disqualified. We don't understand this. The judge was wrong, legal experts think this decision is wrong and the public knows this is wrong."
The family and defense attorneys contend that the Tankleffs were killed by a group of conspirators that include Joseph Creedon, Peter Kent and Jerry Steuerman - all of whom deny involvement.
Steuerman, who now lives in Florida, operated a string of bagel stores on Long Island and, as a business partner of Seymour Tankleff, owed Tankleff hundreds of thousands of dollars. The defense claims Steuerman ordered Creedon and Kent to murder the couple.
Steuerman's son, Todd, was a cocaine dealer on Long Island who employed Creedon to collect his debts for him, Creedon testified during the hearing.
The law firm that Spota shared with Gerard Sullivan had represented both Steuermans in separate criminal matters, once each in the 1990s, after Spota split with Sullivan. But there was also a case in the early 1980s in which the firm represented Todd Steuerman - while Spota and Sullivan were still partners.
Braslow took pains in his decision to point out that Spota had left the firm before two of the Steuerman cases originated, but Braslow did not address the 1983 Todd Steuerman drug case that Spota revealed was handled by his firm while he partnered with Sullivan.
James McCready, the Suffolk detective who took Tankleff's confession - which Tankleff almost immediately disavowed - had also been represented by Spota in an unrelated criminal matter.
During an interrogation hours after the murders, McCready tricked Tankleff, who was 17 years old and not yet represented by an attorney, into providing a confession.
Barket and Pollack filed their motion for a special prosecutor after a witness, Leonard Lubrano of Wading River, testified in Braslow's court on Aug. 3 that McCready and Steuerman were associates - testimony that directly conflicted McCready's testimony during the 1990 trial that he did not know Steuerman.
When the hearing resumes, Lubrano will be cross-examined by Lato.