From Newsday July 2008
The case of People v. Tankleff is over.
The decision by the special prosecutor, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, ends the prosecution of Martin Tankleff for the 1988 murder of his parents. But it does not remove the cloud of suspicion.
Cuomo’s staff said that there’s evidence of Tankleff’s guilt, but not enough to prove him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. And they said there’s no clear evidence to prosecute those identified by Tankleff’s defense team as the real killers.
So Jerry Steuerman, a business associate of Tankleff’s father, Seymour, will not be prosecuted. Nor will Joseph Creedon or Peter Kent, described by Tankleff’s lawyers as paid hit-men. They all move on with their lives.
Sitting with his suit jacket off and his tie loosened in the Garden City law office of his attorney Bruce Barket, Tankleff reflected on his long journey to what he called “essentially” the finish line Monday. But with every step he takes toward freedom he said there is lingering resentment over the anguish he has been forced to endure for more than half of his life.
“The more people learn about the case, the more they say, ‘Why has it taken so long?'” said Tankleff, who was “cautiously optimistic” as he entered a Riverhead courtroom Monday to learn his fate. “After 20 years of legal hurdles and ups and downs, you never know what to expect.”
Tankleff said he can now focus on bringing what he called the real criminals in his case to justice, now that he expects state Supreme Court Justice Robert W. Doyle to make the dismissal of his own charges official in three weeks. Although Cuomo’s chief trial attorney, Benjamin Rosenberg, suggested that there is not enough evidence to pursue charges against other suspects, Tankleff said his father’s former business partner, Jerry Steuerman, and the two hired hit man that Tankleff believes carried out the killings will not get away with murder.
“It’s not possible — not with my family and me behind it,” said Tankleff, who added that he also looked forward to Suffolk police and prosecutors having to pay for their role in his conviction. “Hopefully someone will make them answer.”
Tankleff said he has no immediate plans to pursue a civil case against authorities for what he said was his wrongful imprisonment, or against his half-sister, Shari Mistretta, to recoup his inheritance.
“One day at a time,” Tankleff said. “Before I could even think about anything like that, I had to get to this point first.”
Tankleff said he was unfazed by Mistretta’s steadfast opinion that he is guilty, and called her the “outsider of the family.” Being joined by dozens of family members from both sides of his family in court Monday was “all that matters. . . . My family has supported me for 20 years and they know every piece of this case.”
With the weight of worrying about a second trial off his shoulders, Tankleff said he hopes to get on with his life, first by finding “gainful employment.” He said he wants to finish his studies at Hofstra University and then pursue a legal career fighting for the wrongfully convicted.
More immediately, Tankleff planned to celebrate his legal victory with friends and family in Westbury. But he said any champagne-drinking would be tempered with the solemn reality at the heart of his case.
“My parents were murdered 20 years ago. I was wrongly prosecuted. And the killers are still out there,” Tankleff said. “It’s really not that type of celebratory day. It’s a day of relief that it’s finally, essentially, over for me. But the killers are still roaming the streets.”
But it’s unlikely that the fascination with the case, or the strong opinions on either side, will fade soon.
Tankleff was the son of a wealthy family, and many found it credible that he had killed his parents for denying him what he wanted. Even his half-sister, Shari Rother, believed him guilty. But many others who knew him well, including other relatives, felt he couldn’t have committed such violent crimes. And many who knew the criminal justice system in Suffolk, where confessions were the key evidence in a suspiciously large percentage of cases, didn’t believe Tankleff’s confession was genuine.
Still, a jury believed it in 1990. From then on, Tankleff never stopped working to prove his innocence, through a long new-evidence hearing to an appellate court ruling last year that he should get a new trial.
Cuomo’s office gave the case as dispassionate a review as possible, and soon, a judge will likely grant his motion to dismiss the charges. Then we all have to begin to accept the reality that our justice system is far from perfect, and perfect certainty is sometimes beyond its ability to deliver.