innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Unfortunate Son: The Case of Martin Tankleff

The confession that cost 17-year-old Martin Tankleff his freedom was written by somebody else.

Even though the Long Island high school student refused to sign the paper that implicated him in the murder of his parents, he was convicted on the strength of this confession.

After waking up to find his mother dead and his father clinging to life, Tankleff called 911 and attempted to save his dad with first aid.

The boy was questioned about the murders, and Suffolk County Detective K. James McCready admitted he lied to Tankleff about incriminating evidence, going so far as to say that his father had woken up from his coma and accused his son of the brutal attacks.

McCready used another perfectly legal technique known to inspire false confessions—he engaged in speculation with the suspect about how he could have committed the crime, suggesting that Tankleff might have blacked out during the killings, causing him to forget.

The underage kid who had just become a double orphan “began to doubt his sanity.” He discussed how the murders might have happened, but refused to call this a confession, and refused to sign the document McCready wrote.

Children are especially prone to giving false confessions. In fact, 42% of cases in which children were later exonerated, they had given false confessions. For adults, it was only 13%.

From the beginning, Martin Tankleff and the majority of his immediate family believed that their father’s business partner had committed the crime.

The business partner, Jerard Steuerman was in the bagel business with Martin’s dad, Seymour. Steuerman owed him $500,000 and was trying to cut Seymour Tankleff out of co-ownership of new bagel franchises. Steuerman had even threatened to kill Seymour.

A week after Arlene Tankleff was murdered and her husband lay dying in a coma, Steuerman fled the state, altered his appearance and started using an alias.

Police never interviewed Martin’s family and never pursued Mr. Steuerman as a suspect.

Martin Tankleff is now 34, and hopeful that he will be exonerated.

“I never saw a similar case where a defendant was so obviously innocent." said retired State Supreme Court Justice Herbert A. Posner.

For the whole story from Bruce Lambert at the New York Times, click here.

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