Why $10 Million for Marty Tankleff is Not Enough

Suffolk County lawmakers on Thursday approved a $10 million settlement for Martin Tankleff, who served 17 years in prison for killing his parents before an appellate court overturned the conviction in 2007. The legislature’s Ways and Means Committee voted 5-0 for the settlement, which was recommended by County Attorney Dennis Brown. “There’s no amount of money that can ever restore my life or give me back everything that I lost,” Tankleff, 46, said late Thursday in a phone interview to Newsday. The money will allow him to focus on his work on wrongful convictions, including teaching a class with attorney Marc Howard at Georgetown University that is examining four cases of possible wrongful conviction.

I have known Marty for years – we communicated during his incarceration about his case and other wrongful conviction cases. Since his release and exoneration, we have consulted each other about cases we are working on and have even presented together at a wrongful conviction seminar at Touro College of Law. I consider him a colleague and a friend. I know the extremely capable and zealous lawyers who represented him in his exoneration and in this civil case. Working with Marty, they never gave up the pursuit of justice and fought tooth and nail at every turn. Ten million dollars is a fair settlement figure and completely in line, and in fact a little higher, than other cases settled for comparable years. And of course, no amount of money can properly compensate any wrongful conviction exoneree.

Marty Tankleff

So what’s my issue with the settlement? (1) I believe one of the reasons Suffolk County chose to settle is to make sure that a microscope was not placed on the cesspool that was Suffolk County Criminal Justice under District Attorney Thomas Spota and Police Commissioner James Burke. Spota ruled as Suffolk DA from 2001 until 2017 when he and an aide were indicted on charges of obstructing the investigation of James Burke, who was himself accused of beating a handcuffed suspect who had allegedly broken into Burke’s car. The suspect, who was later convicted by a special prosecutor, was accused of stealing a duffel bag in Burke’s car that contained cigars, sex toys and pornographic DVDs. The DA’s office under Spota often cozied up to those in power and was not afraid to use the power of its office in support of those people. During his tenure a number of prosecutions have been overturned for prosecutors withholding evidence or misleading courts. Many Suffolk County judges either worked with Spota in the DA’s office or were afraid to call out the shenanigans of his office due to his political clout: He was so powerful, he had run unopposed his last few terms. The settlement contains no admission of wrongdoing (as they all do) but the fact is that Spota’s Office, through one of his biggest lackeys, former Suffolk ADA Leonard Lato, kept trying to stand by the Tankleff conviction even with the mountain of evidence Marty and his lawyers produced that not only pointed to Marty’s innocence but which led a clear path to the person who killed Marty’s parents. And that leads to point (2) Will new Suffolk County DA Tim Sini pursue that evidence and try to bring the real killer to justice? I hope so, because until someone does, this settlement is just lip service to “justice.” One of the the things about wrongful convictions that is often overlooked is that the real killer has gone free. That means that the victims’ family – and Marty is one of them – is robbed of their moment of justice. I don’t say “closure” because I don’t believe in that word. People who have suffered loss like this don’t ever get closure. The best they can hope for is some measure of satisfaction and relief. And that leads me to point (3) Without an open re-examination of the Tankleff killings, Marty will never get full justice. The murder of his parents was front page news for weeks, months, with every step played out in the media. Everyone was led to believe that Marty was guilty. He was painted as a spoiled child who was upset over the way his parents had treated him. To this day, there are people on Long Island who still think he committed the crime. Being accused of killing one’s parents is far worse than being accused of most any other murder, except perhaps the murder of one’s child. In the Newsday interview about the settlement, Marty states:

“There’s no amount of money that can ever restore my life or give me back everything that I lost. When I hear people talk about closure, closure isn’t in this. The closest thing to closure that I could accept is if the district attorney sits down with us, and lets us present everything we have on who killed my parents.”

It seems like a simple enough request and something Marty Tankleff is owed by Suffolk County – far more than the $10 Million settlement. Congratulations again to Marty and his legal team and I hope you get the opportunity that you have sought for so long to present your case.

Follow me on Twitter @oscarmichelen

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