It’s been just over 29 years since Seymour and Arlene Tankleff were slashed and bludgeoned in their cliff-top Belle Terre home and their 17-year-old son, Martin, was charged with the attack.
Still one of Long Island’s most notorious crimes, it has remained in the public eye, through Martin Tankleff’s trial and conviction for two counts of second-degree murder, his legal team’s discovery of new evidence that suggested others committed the crimes, the dismissal of his charges and his $3.375 million settlement with New York State for 17 years of false imprisonment after a separate lawsuit.
Next month, the legal saga continues. A federal judge is expected to set a trial date for Tankleff’s suit against Suffolk County and the detectives who he says coerced him into making a false confession and suppressed evidence favorable to him, all in pursuit of a malicious prosecution of him.
In the 8 1⁄2 years since the suit was filed, Tankleff and his team have found more evidence that they say bolsters their case.
In legal papers, they said Suffolk detectives knew all along that a so-called watermelon knife wasn’t the murder weapon, but hid that not only from the defense, but from the trial prosecutor, John Collins. And in a deposition, they say the lead investigator — Det. K. James McCready, now deceased — conceded for the first time that he might have missed evidence that supported Tankleff’s version of events.
The county insists in legal papers that Tankleff’s confession is as valid as it ever was and that the detectives acted properly.
Tankleff, who is on the verge of becoming an attorney, is represented by a team that includes Bruce Barket of Garden City and Barry Scheck, the Manhattan attorney who co-founded the Innocence Project, a legal organization that fights to free wrongfully convicted inmates.
“The traction of this case is Marty, and all he’s accomplished” despite losing 17 years of his life, Scheck said. “What has always troubled me the most about Marty’s case is that I’ve always looked at Marty as a crime victim himself. His parents were murdered, and he was cruelly left to discover them himself.”
Tankleff has said he was in a state of shock that night, but detectives have said they saw his apparent lack of emotion as suspicious. After hours of questioning, McCready faked getting a phone call from the hospital and pretended to be told that the dying Seymour had identified his son as his attacker. With that, Tankleff began to question his reality, he has said.
The confession that Tankleff agreed to — and almost immediately repudiated — doesn’t match the forensic evidence, his attorneys argue. A Tankleff family lawyer stopped the questioning before detectives could get Tankleff’s signature on a statement they wrote. It reflected detectives’ early and mistaken view of what they thought happened based on what they saw at the Tankleff house.
The statement identified the wrong murder weapons, for example, notes Tankleff’s suit. The confession — and the subsequent prosecution — claimed Tankleff killed his parents using a barbell in his room and a knife found next to a watermelon in the kitchen. But according to testimony at his trial, forensic testing showed that stains on both items were not blood, and no blood was found in the home’s drains.
An imprint of a knife found by state investigators in Arlene Tankleff’s bloody sheets years after the trial did not match the watermelon knife or any knife in the house, Tankleff’s suit says.
Tankleff’s attorneys say the confession also gave the wrong sequence of events. It says Tankleff killed his mother before attacking his father, yet his father’s blood was found near a light switch in the room where his mother was killed. That suggests Seymour was attacked first, Tankleff says.
And Tankleff has always said that police ignored an obvious suspect, Jerry Steuerman, his father’s business partner who owed him hundreds of thousands of dollars. Steuerman was the last person to leave a late-night poker game, hours before the murders, and a blood-spattered demand that Steuerman repay some of what he owed was found in Seymour Tankleff’s desk.
Steuerman, who now lives in Florida, refused to answer any questions in his deposition for this trial, citing his Fifth Amendment right to not incriminate himself.
“He has always maintained and continues to maintain his innocence,” said Steuerman’s lawyer, Stephen Scaring of Garden City. “Everyone needs a target, and he’s theirs [the Tankleff team’s]. He was never charged.”
An appellate court freed Martin Tankleff because of new evidence his investigators found that linked men they say were hired by Steuerman to commit the murders was not given due consideration. Tankleff’s lawyers say the saga of the watermelon knife is one thing that shows their client didn’t do it either.
In pretrial depositions, former Deputy Medical Examiner Vernard Adams said he alerted detectives present at the autopsy that the knife wasn’t the weapon, according to court papers. Yet Collins, in his deposition, said no one told him the watermelon knife wasn’t the weapon. As a result, Collins argued that it was to the jury.
Under what is known as the Brady rule, police and prosecutors are generally required to inform the defense of any evidence helpful to their case. Collins said in his deposition he would have disclosed that the watermelon knife wasn’t the murder weapon if he’d known.
Another step forward for Tankleff came during the deposition of McCready. Tankleff has said he called 911 from his father’s home office, using a phone spattered with his dying father’s blood. McCready had always claimed there were no blood smears to support that, but during the December 2012 deposition, McCready examined photos of the phone with a magnifying glass and, for the first time, conceded there may have been smears in the blood after all.
The county declined to comment on the suit, but in court papers Assistant County Attorney Brian Mitchell argued that the confession was reliable because it was the result of McCready’s “ruse.”
Mitchell wrote that it was the “ultimate expression of exercising one’s free will” when Tankleff first denied the version of events suggested by detectives “but then made the conscious choice to just go along with what they were saying.”
Barket said that argument made no sense.
“You have a 17-year-old kid with no memory of killing his parents, because he didn’t,” Barket said. “It would be impossible for Marty to have made up a series of facts that magically matched what the detectives already believed. It proves the confession is false, proves misconduct, proves his innocence. It proves everything.”
Tankleff and his lawyers say they would be happy to settle the case with the county, but if they have to try the case, they are confident of success. They cite similar cases from this area that resulted in the plaintiffs winning dozens of millions of dollars.
Tankleff’s team is also confident because of what he has done since leaving prison. He’s gotten both a college and a law degree and passed the bar, and has become an advocate for the wrongfully convicted. A jury considering what someone with his abilities could have done and earned if not for 17 needlessly lost years could return a huge verdict, they say.
“Marty has transcendence,” Scheck said, explaining how his client has coped. “He just never, never gives up. The path he’s on now shows what he’s going to do for the rest of his life.”