JOHN JAY COLLEGE OF CRIMINAL JUSTICE
PI's New Evidence Wins Freedom For a Convicted Man
On New Year's Day 2001, Jay Salpeter, a private investigator and former New York City police detective, was going through his mail when an envelope caught his eye because of its return address: the maximum security state prison in Dannemora.
The letter was from Martin Tankleff - Inmate 90T 3844. He was serving a 50-year sentence for the 1988 murders of his parents which happened when he was 17. But he wrote that he was innocent. And after 10 years of failed appeals, his only hope was to find out who really killed his parents and reopen the case with evidence that proved it. Tankleff had heard that Salpeter had a knack for finding new evidence in old cases. But his family didn't have much money to pay him. "I wonder if you would be willing to work on my case on a pro bono or primarily pro bono basis," he wrote.
Salpeter took the case and worked it for seven years. He made $10,000 but the real payoff was far bigger. On Dec. 21, 2007 - seven years almost to the day Tankleff sent his first letter to Salpeter from prison - a state appeals court vacated his convictions. The reversal was based on evidence Salpeter turned up over the course of a methodical, lonely and often agonizing investigation that he sometimes thought would never end. "Once I was convinced that Marty was innocent, how could I not do it? How could I stop?" Salpeter says. "But in my wildest imagination, I didn't think I would wind up working the case for seven years."
Salpeter had similar thoughts once before - as a student at CUNY's John Jay College of Criminal Justice during his early years as a police officer: "It took me nine years to graduate," he says. "I stuck with it, going at night, stopping, starting up again. I just wanted to have a college degree. All my friends did. I graduated the same year as my closest friend growing up. I got my bachelor's he got his M.D."
Salpeter's persistent nature paid off for Tankleff, a young man who found himself in the most Kafkaesque of circumstances. He was a typical Long Island teenager until that day, in September 1988 - the first day of his senior year in high school - he woke up to find his parents stabbed and bludgeoned. Arlene Tankleff was dead. Seymour was barely alive. By the end of that day, he was under arrest, the police saying he confessed. He was convicted two years later and sentenced to the maximum. Tankleff, 19, wouldn't be eligible for parole until he was 69.
A decade later, Salpeter became his unlikely savior. He grew up in Queens and joined the New York Police Department after high school. He worked as a patrolman in Brooklyn and then as an undercover decoy on the department's street crimes unit. Meanwhile, he spent whatever spare time he could find pursuing his B.A. in criminal justice at John Jay. He began while in the police academy in 1972 and earned his degree just before his 30th birthday. "I saw the school grow," he says. "When I started, it was on Park Avenue South near Baruch College. It was mostly cops and law enforcement then. By the time I graduated, they moved to Tenth Avenue and it wasn't just cops."
Salpeter became a detective about the same time he became a college graduate. After 10 years, he tired of the murder and mayhem and retired.
A year later, he became a private investigator and instead of arresting suspects he was working for their lawyers. Along the way, he found himself with a few cases in which it seemed that his former brethren had locked up innocent people. So when he received Tankleff's letter from prison, Salpeter was open to the possibility that Tankleff was, as he claimed, an innocent man, wrongly convicted.
"What I saw right away was that the Suffolk County police never investigated the case," Salpeter said. "If they did, they would have made Jerry Steuerman the prime suspect, not Marty."
Jerry Steuerman was Tankleff's estranged business partner. He owed Seymour Tankleff a half million dollars, and the two had been at war for months. Salpeter came to believe that the lead detective, James McCready, might have framed Tankleff by fabricating his confession - a scenario suggested by its inconsistency with the physical evidence. Salpeter eventually developed evidence that McCready had a prior relationship with Steuerman but lied about it at the trial. McCready has denied any wrongdoing.
In the criminal justice system, reversing a murder conviction with new evidence is one of the hardest things to do. Harder still, nowadays, without DNA evidence. But Salpeter did, using old-fashioned gumshoe work to slowly unravel the case. The big break came when Salpeter tracked down a man who eventually admitted he had driven the killers - two men allegedly hired by Steuerman - to the Tankleff home on the night of the murders.
Salpeter continued to find people who knew pieces of the puzzle, while still others came forward on their own. One was the teenage son of one of the alleged hit men. He testified in appeals court that his father admitted to him that he committed the murders - and said that his father claimed that McCready was paid off to protect him and his coconspirators. The teenager's story along with other evidence Salpeter found led the court to overturn Tankleff's convictions.
The Tankleff case became a cause célèbre and made Salpeter one of the country's most high-profile private investigators. "Jay Salpeter is the best investigator I've ever known," Tankleff's lead attorney, Stephen Braga of Washington, declared at a news conference following Tankleff's release. Tankleff himself hailed Salpeter as his savior. "...You gave me my life back," he wrote to him on his last day in prison, a poignant bookend to his first letter seven years earlier.
Last December, Salpeter and author Richard Firstman published A Criminal Injustice, a book that both deconstructed the wrongful prosecution of Tankleff and reconstructed the investigation that reversed it. The book also revealed new details exposing the corruption by Suffolk County authorities that the authors allege was at the root of Tankleff's 17-year imprisonment.
Another Top Expert Spots Lies
False confessions have come a long way as a recognized phenomenon since the days when Jay Salpeter was a student at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. A good deal of the credit goes to another man with a connection to John Jay who has an abiding professional interest in the Martin Tankleff case.
Saul Kassin, distinguished professor of psychology at John Jay, is one of the country's leading authorities on interrogations and confessions. And like other top experts who have studied the case, he concluded long ago that Tankleff was the victim of psychological manipulation and outright fabrication by the Suffolk County police that cost him 17 years of his life.
Kassin is a pioneer in the field of false confessions, an area of interest he came upon after spending his early career researching juries and how they make judgments. "My fascination with confessions started with the question, 'Can you pry juries away from confessions?' " The answer, generally, was no. The next question was: Is confession evidence necessarily reliable? And the answer to that was troubling.
In 1985, Kassin and colleague, Lawrence S. Wrightsman, were the first to raise questions about confession evidence. They called on others in the fields of criminology and psychology to join them in making it the subject of scientific study. They were particularly interested in exploring false confessions — how often they occurred, under what circumstances, and how jurors might distinguish them.
Kassin began looking at the Tankleff case in 1992, not long after Tankleff's conviction. He found that the lead detective told Tankleff several manipulative lies in the interrogation room; the pivotal one was that his father had regained consciousness and identified him as his assailant. It led the dazed teenager to think he might have committed the attacks, as the police were insisting, and then blacked out. But he was unable to supply the details. According to Salpeter and Kassin, the detective did that for him.
"There was no evidence of Marty's involvement in these murders," Kassin said. In fact, he said, the physical evidence of the case disproved virtually every element of the confession that the police attributed to their teenage suspect. But the jury convicted him nonetheless. They couldn't imagine the police making up a confession. And they couldn't imagine someone confessing to crimes he didn't commit. Kassin has been writing and lecturing about the Tankleff case ever since. It's now a staple of the graduate-level course he teaches in confession evidence.