Freed After 18 Years, Man Awaits New Trial
ALISON STEWART, host:
Over the weekend, it was reported New York State began an official inquiry into law enforcement's handling of a murder investigation that may have put the wrong man behind bars for more than half of his life.
Marty Tankleff was 17 in 1988 when his mother and father were fatally bludgeoned and slashed in their waterfront home in Long Island. Police were convinced the son did it. And when the teenager initially confessed under some hazy circumstances, Tankleff later recanted, but he was charged, convicted and sent to prison. He spent the last 18 years in jail, telling anyone who would listen that he was innocent.
A private investigator and a lawyer did listen, and through some digging, found witnesses, they seemed to finger another man as the killer - perhaps his dad's business partner.
So after years of legal battles and denials, one appeals court has vacated Marty Tankleff's conviction. And the now 36-year-old Marty spend his first weekend as a free man in nearly two decades. But Marty's legal troubles aren't quite over. The original murder indictments against him still stand.
Here he is just after being released last Thursday.
Mr. MARTY TANKLEFF: Remember (unintelligible), I am still accused by the Suffolk County D.A. of the murder of my parents, and I'm awaiting a possible retrial. I hope that I can continue to count on everyone's support as I defend myself once again. I always had faith this day would come. And I look forward to welcoming in the New Year with my family and friends.
STEWART: Prosecutors say they intend to retry him. No one else has ever been arrested in the case. And the assistant D.A. says it's basically a do-over.
With all of that in mind, I recently spoke with Marty's lawyer, Bruce Barket, about Tankleff's current situation, how he got there and what's next.
So Bruce, an appellate court overturned your client's conviction. So what did this court hear that a previous court denied overturning his conviction? What did they hear that the other court didn't hear?
Mr. BRUCE BARKET (Attorney): Well, I think they heard the same evidence and reviewed the same evidence. They simply had a different view of it. The linchpin of the two decision was - two decisions was the cumulative nature of the evidence. The lower court essentially ignored the number and diversity of the witnesses, and the appellate court laid their decision at the cornerstone of the number and diversity of the witnesses.
STEWART: When you say the number and diversity of the witnesses, explain to our listeners who you're talking about.
Mr. BARKET: Well, we had about upwards of 12 to 15 witnesses that implicated four other men in the murder of Marty Tankleff's parents. Those witnesses differ from each other in terms of their background. Some of them were hardened criminals. Some of them were just regular citizens. One was a Catholic priest. And they differed from each other in terms of when they learned of the information over a number of different years. Information came to them from a number of different sources.
And the appellate court said that there is really no explanation for all these different people who didn't know each other who got information implicating the same group of men over a long period of time other than they're the right people. And Marty Tankleff would likely be acquitted if a second jury heard that evidence.
STEWART: So let's take a look at the words of Marty Tankleff that really seemed to convict him in the first place. Back in the day, he gave a confession, and he recanted. Can you explain to our listeners why he confessed in the first place?
Mr. BARKET: Well, you have to put the confession in quotes. What happened to Marty was that he was confronted with two irreconcilable facts. One was he knew he did not kill his parents. And two, he was being told by the police that they have forensic evidence that proved that he did, and worse than that, that his father came out of a coma and that his father had identified him as the killer.
Now, Marty, who was a 17-year-old boy who believed and trusted the police as much as he believed and trusted his father - so when he heard that his father had said he was the killer and one of the police officers suggested to him that maybe he did it in blacked out, Marty bought in to that explanation to resolve the irreconcilable facts that were before him, which is he know he didn't do it, but his father said he did. And he said, well, maybe I could have done it and blacked out, and then was essentially fed a series of facts that the police believed were true. And that became, quote, unquote, "the confession."
The facts that the police believed to be true - the murder weapons, who was killed first, how the crime happened - all turned out to be forensically proven to be wrong. And thus, we had a false confession based upon a series of lies told to a young boy in shock.
STEWART: I understand that Marty was active in researching his case while he was in jail. What did he do or contribute to gain his own freedom?
Mr. BARKET: Well, he really - if you ever seen the movie "The Shawshank Redemption," where the character that Tim Robbins plays writes a letter a day to get a series - his library built. That's much what Marty did.
I mean, and it wasn't just a letter a day. It was probably a dozen or more letters a day to lawyers, to forensic experts, to private investigators. He did research. He gutted the record. He understood the record. He literally did everything from factual research to finding individuals to help him, to legal research. And he taught himself how to do all this over the years. It's a real lesson for individuals who are wrongfully incarcerated, that if you're going - if you think that you're going to sit there and somebody's going to come and save you, you're wrong. You got to go out and take the lead yourself, and Marty did that.
STEWART: We're talking to Bruce Barket. He is the attorney for Marty Tankleff, who has just gotten out of jail after spending 17 years in jail?
Mr. BARKET: It was actually closer to - it'll be 18…
Mr. BARKET: …it would have been 18 in June.
STEWART: So he's out of jail right now, but he's not out of this legal tangle yet. He had to post bond to leave. How much he had to post?
Mr. BARKET: The bond - it was an unsecured bond in the amount of $1 million.
STEWART: Now, some legal experts have written the D.A. in this case could drop the charges against your client. The D.A. said he doesn't really see that he has any other alternatives but to retry your client. Could he drop the case, in your opinion?
Mr. BARKET: He can dismiss the case. He can retry it. And what we think he should do is really reopen it and investigate the individuals that have been implicated by…
STEWART: So you want it reopened, period.
Mr. BARKET: …the - well, my chief concern is to have the case against Marty dismissed. I don't think the district attorney's office ought to waste any more resources in pursuing such an obviously innocent man as Marty Tankleff. But then again, no one's elected me district attorney, and I don't get to make that call.
STEWART: So why would he pursue it?
Mr. BARKET: You know, you really have to ask the district attorney as to what they plan to do. They have - it has become an article of faith in Suffolk County, New York, that Marty Tankleff killed his parents, at least in terms of the law enforcement community. They have so strongly and bitterly fought his release over the years, that I wonder about their objectivity in reviewing the evidence that's been presented.
STEWART: If there is a new trial for your client, what do you think will be different this time around that would lead to a different and better conclusion for him?
Mr. BARKET: I think there are two major differences between now and 1991 that would - society generally has a much better, more complete view of the possibility of false confessions. The work that Barry Scheck has done with the Innocence Project, where DNA has conclusively proven that people do, in fact, get wrongly convicted, 25 percent of those cases - 25 percent - where individuals would falsely confessed.
STEWART: So you think you'll have a better informed jury, perhaps.
Mr. BARKET: We'll have a better informed jury, and, of course, we have a dozen witnesses that implicate four other men in the murder.
STEWART: That was Bruce Barket, Marty Tankleff's lawyer. I spoke to him earlier. Actually, late last week.
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