Anyone who has ever worked in government knows that there are certain laws and standards that hold for all jobs in all branches. Among them are ethical concerns that should be so obvious as to not even warrant attention, such as avoiding an appearance of impropriety or not using public office for personal gain or the gain of others.
The reality, of course, is that our government and courts are not always consistent in enforcing these ethics standards — and occasionally, those charged with upholding the law disregard it.
More often than we may want to believe, the law is twisted by officials in order to put an innocent person behind bars, which is why there is a continued need for public watchdog groups like the Government Accountability Project and Yeshiva University’s Innocence Project. The integrity of our legal system demands a vigilant public because innocent people are still locked up — because people like Martin Tankleff are still in prison.
Now 34 years old, Tankleff is serving 50 years to life for the 1988 murder of his parents in their Long Island home. He has already spent 17 years — half of his life — behind bars. From the very beginning, the case against Tankleff has stood on fragile ground.
There is no DNA evidence tying him to the crime, but there is DNA that has never been tested: skin found under the fingernails of his mother, Arlene Tankleff. The Suffolk County district attorney’s office, however, has stonewalled requests for testing it.
Unidentified rootless hair was found on his father, Seymour Tankleff. The man last seen at his home that night had a hair weave. Again, Suffolk County, N.Y., authorities disregarded the information.
The confession on which Tankleff’s conviction was primarily based was never signed, and was recanted soon thereafter. What’s more, it was written by a detective, James McCready, who had been charged with perjury in another case and who later opened a bar with the husband of Tankleff’s half sister, Shari Rother Mistretta.
Mistretta was the only heir to Seymour and Arlene Tankleff’s multi-million dollar estate who benefited financially from Martin Tankleff’s conviction. Hers was the only relative’s name missing when 27 of Tankleff’s family members signed a statement in 2004 in support of his efforts to obtain a new trial.
In a hearing on the case opened in July 2004 and closed this past December, an astounding body of witnesses, many unknown to each other, came forward — often at personal risk — to point the finger at the likely murderers. All named gunmen hired by Jerry Steureman, Seymour Tankleff’s business partner in a chain of bagel stores. Steureman owed Seymour Tankleff hundreds of thousands of dollars, and was the last person known to have seen him on the night of the murders.
Soon after the crime was committed, Steureman withdrew the remaining funds from his joint account with Seymour Tankleff, faked his own death, fled to California, altered his appearance — including getting a new hair weave — and assumed a new identity. Yet police bought his incredible alibi that he fled to escape purported death threats he allegedly received once fingered by the Tankleff family as the likely murderer.
Meanwhile, the Suffolk County prosecutorial system has revealed itself to be the very image of the distortion of justice. The Suffolk County district attorney, Thomas Spota, has a history of personal interests with individuals connected to the Tankleff case. All the individuals with whom he has connections stand in opposition to the defense’s interests — which gives off more than a passing appearance of conflicts of interest.
In private practice, Spota’s firm handled a drug-related case involving Todd Steuerman, son of Jerry Steureman. Spota himself represented McCready, the detective who obtained the questionable confession from Martin Tankleff, at an earlier trial on assault charges. In a separate case, he represented McCready and the police union when the detective went before the New York State Commission of Investigation on perjury charges — for which he was found guilty. And Spota defended several other police officers against a 1989 report by the commission that charged Suffolk County with “misconduct and mismanagement in homicide investigations and prosecutions.”
In an attempt to avoid an appearance of conflict in the Tankleff case, Spota appointed in 2003 a subordinate to fill in for him. However, the investigator Spota appointed to look into the new evidence put forth by the defense reports directly to him. And if that is not enough, the investigator himself is also cited for misconduct in the same state report that cites McCready.
The whole story reads almost like “Alice in Wonderland,” with the Suffolk County prosecutorial system as the mad queen of hearts sentencing first and issuing a verdict afterward. But while little Alice awakens from her dream, the nightmare goes on for Martin Tankleff and his family.
They are closer than ever to closing the book on this tragedy, thanks largely to scrutiny by watchdog groups and the media, but can now only put their faith in Suffolk County judge Steven Braslow to order a new trial or vacate his conviction. It is now in Braslow’s hands to bring a measure of justice to Martin Tankleff, and in the process open a new chapter in government accountability.
Suzanne Meyer is a former senior ethics official and general counsel staff member at the National Archives and Records Administration.