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Touro Law: The Tankleff case and the problem of unjust convictions

Students from the Touro Criminal Law Society organized a wonderful presentation at the Tour Law Center: “The Tankleff Case and the Problem of Unjust Convictions.” The panelists were: Martin Tankleff, exonoree; Robert Gottlieb, Esq., Tankleff’s trial counsel; Bruce Barket, Esq., Tankleff’s lawyer post-conviction; Mark Dwyer, Esq. of the New York County District Attorney’s office; and Professor Richard Moran of Mount Holyoke College, an expert on wrongful convictions.

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Marty Tankleff speaks to Professor Richard Moran. Barket & Gottlieb in background.

The program focused on how Marty Tankleff — then 17-years-old — was pressured into a false confession of having killed his parents, and was then wrongly convicted. Martin Tankleff spent more than a decade in jail for a murder he did not commit. And, seeing the “48 Hours” television epidose about the events, and listening to Marty Tankleff and his lawyers tell the story, you also remember the whole other injustice and sadness of this young man being confused, attacked, and imprisoned, when he was innocent, and while he was in mourning for his parents who were dead, murdered by someone else.

Marty Tankleff is presently attending college. And, he will go to law school next. Tankleff has co-founded a business, Fortress Innocence Group, to assist others who were wrongfully convicted.

The program also included other profound discussions…Panelists discussed the advantages and disadvantages of being a prosecutor vs. being a defense attorney. Some on the panel, such as Bruce Barket, were very sentimental and passionate about being able to pitch their chosen profession to the young law students present. There was a lot of back and forth about the idea of requiring police to videotape confessions. I had previously heard another exonoree, Jeffrey Deskovic, advocate for requiring videotaping of confessions. And, Marty Tankleff wants that to happen, too. So, even though there were some nuanced opinions from some on the panel – that they would cost too much, that bad police would not do them anyway, etc. – I still believe that videotaping confessions from beginning to end and demanding that prosecutors produce them at trial would be a great step. It seems to be something that the New York State Bar Association Task Force on Wrognful Convictions, which both Robert Gottlieb and Mark Dwyer are on, are deliberating.

The panelists were amazing. Marty Tankleff spoke first. It is amazing that he can retell the story, it just shows his bravery. He revealed his concerns about people both innocent and guilty, stuck in a problematic and dehumanizing prison system. I noticed that Marty said “shit” a few times. Not like someone with no manners. But, as someone who has experienced shit and injustice and deserves to be a witness to it. It made him and his experience very real.

I am interested in addressing the problem of wrongful convictions. My husband and I have written a lot in support of the Innocence Project, and also about individuals caught up in the criminal justice system. And, the Marty Tankleff case was of particular interest. While Tankleff was still fighting the battle, our political friend, Bobby O, kept us focused on what was happening. I was so happy to hear the news when Marty Tankleff was released.

Though, the tipping point for me in attending was that Robert Gottlieb was a panelist. Many years ago, when I was facing a year in jail for playing flute to a tree at a ceremony/demonstration, Robert Gottlieb took on my case pro bono. I have studied and admired his work since. And, I am also thankful to Robert Gottlieb for introducing me to his associate, Celia Gordon, Esq., who was with me in court the day my charges were dismissed.

Bruce Barket was Marty Tankleff’s lawyer post-conviction. Though, Barket explained that it took a team of lawyers from various law firms to overturn this case.  Bruce Barket spoke eloquently and passionately of the right of every person to have good defense counsel. Barket asked everyone to think if there was any law that they ever broke – speeding, wrong tax returns, or anything. He says, “We’ve all sinned.” Though, politicans seem to get away with stuff, he notes. Doesn’t everyone- innocent or guilty- deserve to have someone there to advocate them in the system? Barket reminded the audience full of students, that the job of defense attorneys does not just include proving people innocent, it also includes representing people who made mistakes, who need someone to help them ask for mercy or leniency from the court.

Mark Dwyer, Esq.  is the Chief of the Appeals Bureau in the New York County District Attorney’s Office and is a member of the American Bar Association’s Task Force on Wrongful Convictions. At the event, I commented somewhat pointedly about the way that Mark Dwyer spoke like a true politician. I teased him in my questioning, and afterwards in speaking with him, about how he had the oddest combination of liberal and conservative thinking. I believe he likes being an enigma. I did think that Mark Dwyer presented many insightful and profound ideas. Dwyer lamented that much of the problem with the criminal justice system is that it is designed as an adverserial system. He said that with the structure of two opposing sides, one or both sides often start posturing or playing unfair, because they get caught up in the adverserial relationship. Dwyer stated that in an adverserial relationship, you will always attract and/or create people on one side or the other who will go to extremes.

Mark Dwyer’s position about having interrogations videotaped is that it is too expensive, and that if we want it to happen, then citizens should lobby the state legislature for funding. He stated this position forcefully several times. I can’t help but think it is a political strategy, perhaps as simple as pawning off the responsibility to act onto the legislature, when the responsibility probably belongs to prosecutors, the police, and judges. Several people noted examples about who videotaping is not that expsensive anymore: police have video on their patrol cars, 7-11’s have videotapes rolling for security, and many regular citizens have hand-held cameras and publish videotape extensively. My husband, Ian Wilder, notes that if the District Attorneys and or judges stopped allowing as evidence only the few minutes tape of a confession, and demanded to see the entire interrogations from beginning to end, then police would have to instantly start taping and presenting as evidence the entire interrogation.

Professor Richard Moran of Mount Holyoke college was an inspiring speaker.Moran is a sociologist and criminologist. He actually opened by challenging some of the assertions of the previous speakers, that the criminal justice system is itself okay, and it is just people who act badly inside it and break the rules that are the problem.  Moran suggested that if the system is so wonderful and there are only a few bad folks in it,  perhaps all we need to do is give District Attorney’s “whistles.” Moran was suggesting that there have been few, if any, times when district attorney’s have seen wrongdoing, and then blown the whistle on bad police work. I am interested in looking more into Richard Moran’s work and writing. He has been a commentator on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, and written Op-Eds for many prestigious newspapers, including the NY Times and the Washington Post.

Professor Moran added to the discussion that previous panelists brought up about “Brady violations.” Brady violations are times when prosecutors receive evidence that could help the case of or help to exonerate people convicted, and the prosecution withholds or destroys that evidence. This type of behavior is often behind wrongful convictions. Moran expressed his moral outrage for anyone who would withold evidence. He thinks it is a hypocritical euphemism to even called it “Brady violations”, saying that, of course, if anyone besides police or prosecutors did it, it would be called, “Obstructing justice.” Moran asks, “Is it ethical to obstruct justice?”

The Tankleff case, and the conversation about Brady violations, made me realize the fright to general society caused by bad prosecutors who prosecute innocent people, sometimes witholding evidence or distorting the facts to do so. When that happens, the prosecutors have let the real bad guys get away! And, in the “48 Hours” video about the Tankleff case, we see clips of the people who probably really killed Marty Tankleff’s parents. They are scary characters to be on the street at all, no less if they are murders on top of the other crimes that they have evidently served their time for.

With all the excellent speeches, and generous question and answer period, I raised the critique that there were no women on the panel. I think it is always valuable to honor women leaders, and to hear what could be a different angle on problems, by having at least one woman presenter. Even though many of the characters in the story – Marty and his attorneys – were simply men, perhaps some outreach could have been done to add a woman member of the legal team, or a woman commentator. I did feel positive about the fact that Jennifer Solmer, the Vice President of the Criminal Law Society, was able to have some participation and acknowledgment.

The Marty Tankleff case is such an important event in the history of criminal justice in Long Island, and in the country. It is a great credit to the Touro Law school that they used their resources to present such an important program about social justice and the criminal justice system. A lot of future lawyers and community members were able to explore topics that are an important part of the current discourse on criminal law: Brady violations, the nature of the system, and methods to prevent wrongful convictions.

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3 Responses

  1. Kimberly:

    This was a very thoughtful piece and done well. When it comes to wrongful convictions, ideology, religious beliefs, race or the other things in life that divide us should not be a factor. I do not know of any type of belief system that thinks convicting innocent people while the truly guilty remain at large is a great idea whose time has come. Obviously, our objections to injustice maybe colored by our life experiences.

    My advocacy for Martin Tankleff was one of the privileges of my lifetime. However, I doubt that I would have been inspired to go to the lengths I did on behalf of Marty had my family and I not experienced a grave injustice of our own. That seems to be the case for many of Marty’s supporters. It is easier to believe that Marty was framed and railroaded if one has experienced a similar travesty of justice.

    Keep up the good work! We may not agree on much else but we do agree that no one is served when our system of justice fails us.

  2. Sad that the Tankleff trial judge, the pathetic political hack, Al Tisch, who also is a Touro adjunct, probably hid from the presentation. His evidentary rulings were grossly partisan and due to his dislike for Marty’s defense counsel, another example of the gross miscarriage of justice – Tisch should be hung!

  3. I could not agree more with Tom Mullen. When some of us from Suffolk County were advocating for Marty Tankleff, we had thought to organize an advocacy group at Touro College. However, it became very clear to us that there were those at Touro College who did not welcome the idea. I knew the PR director at the time who told me that administrators did not want to alienate Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota who often lectures at Touro and hires many graduates as assistant prosecutors.

    The fact that Alfred Tisch was an adjunct professor did not escape us. I find it very ironical and perhaps fitting that Marty Tankleff is now a law student at Touro Law School. I believe that many Touro students will flock to observe his federal civil rights law suit which will be heard right next to the present location of Touro Law School.

    I was highly outraged when certain top Touro officials tried to suggest that DA Spota had treated Marty fairly when he was finally freed from prison. Nothing could be further from the truth. DA Spota fought tooth and nail to keep Marty in prison. DA Spota and now Governor Cuomo fight to keep the true murderers of Marty’s parents on the streets to murder again.

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