False Confessor Seeks New Trial

by TChris

In April 2004, TalkLeft pointed to evidence that a New York homicide detective used deceit to obtain a confession from a 17-year-old kid, Martin Tankleff, who was convicted of murdering his parents despite the lack of significant evidence against him beyond the confession that Tankleff promptly repudiated. This follow-up story in June 2004 discussed new evidence that implicated another individual in the killing.

In the last year-and-a-half, Tankleff’s lawyers have presented a compelling case that Tankleff is innocent. At the very least, it should now be apparent that there is substantial doubt about Tankleff’s guilt.

Mr. Tankleff's lawyers make these claims: a botched initial investigation produced a false confession, new evidence identifies the real killers, the police detective in the case lied about his ties to one of the killers, the district attorney has connections to the killers, and prosecutors ignored evidence, coerced defense witnesses and shielded the real culprits.

Objective observers recognize that Tankleff doesn’t belong in prison, given the newly-developed evidence.

"I never saw a similar case where a defendant was so obviously innocent," said Herbert A. Posner, a retired State Supreme Court justice who is following the case.

Yet the police and prosecutors in the case refuse to admit the possibility that they erred, or that the police detective’s deceptive tactics could have produced a false confession. The prosecutorial inability to say “I was wrong” is too common, and it may result in Tankleff spending the rest of his life in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

Steven A. Drizin, legal director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University, who studied the Tankleff case, said: "Unfortunately, in almost every wrongful conviction case, even when DNA excludes the suspect, law enforcement officers - whether blinded by tunnel vision, whether they don't want to admit a mistake, whether from fear of civil liability - they remain fixated on preserving a conviction, even in the face of compelling contrary evidence. That's the saddest thing in these cases."

Winning exoneration typically takes a decade and sometimes comes after the defendant dies in prison, said Samuel R. Gross, a University of Michigan law professor and co-author of a landmark study of 340 exonerations. He called them "the tip of an iceberg" of tens of thousands of such cases.

When, as here, there is no DNA evidence to provide nearly irrefutable evidence of innocence, police and prosecutors often become intransigent, and judges are too frequently unwilling to disturb a conviction. This is particularly true when the police claim that a suspect voluntarily confessed. Prosecutors (and juries) consider a confession to be the gold standard of proof. It isn’t.

[F]alse confessions are well documented. "You had cases 75 years ago where someone confessed to killing a missing person, then the supposed victim wanders into a saloon," said Peter J. Neufeld, co-founder of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law's Innocence Project, which has helped to free 170 prisoners.

Today, DNA has disproved confessions, as in the Central Park jogger rape case. Reviewing DNA exonerations nationwide, Professor Gross, of the University of Michigan, found that one-fifth of the defendants had confessed.

False confessions often result from a police officer’s focus on extracting a confession from a suspect instead of performing a full investigation.

Another tactical misstep that leads to erroneous arrests, critics say, is when the police prematurely focus on one suspect and ignore other possibilities. "The man with the most to gain from the death of Marty's parents changes identities and flies to California - that should not have been dismissed," Professor Drizin said.

False confessions also result from police trickery, a practice that courts have too often endorsed, despite the obvious potential for error.

The use of trickery by the police in interrogations is a legal and common technique, but critics say it invites false admissions. In Suffolk County, the State Investigation Commission found ineptitude, corruption and dubious confessions in a majority of cases in the 1980's.

The linked article on Tenkleff’s case is lengthy but well worth reading. The case is a microcosm of the various circumstances that lead to false confessions and wrongful convictions.

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  • Re: False Confessor Seeks New Trial (none / 0) (#1)
    by ltgesq on Tue Jan 03, 2006 at 03:18:48 PM EST
    Any Defense attorney who tries murder cases with any sort of regularity has dealt with situations like Marty Tankleff's. That is the scary part of this story. I once tried a case that after i had my client testify, the prosecutor recalled the detective to refut my client's statement. It was during my subsequent cross-examination the prosecutor (and any other sentient being) figured out that the detective actually was framing my client for not cooperating in the investigation. The jury quickly aquitted my client. In discussing the case with a few jurors afterwards, none of them figured out the detective had been lying. Pretty scary thought considering the prosecutor told me just prior to closing arguement that if he hadn't been conviced the jury was going to acquit, he would have dismissed the case right then. Jurys believe anything a detective tells them, and cannot imagine that cops would not care they have the wrong man.

    Re: False Confessor Seeks New Trial (none / 0) (#2)
    by Sailor on Tue Jan 03, 2006 at 03:26:35 PM EST
    It's a crime if you lie to the feds. In many states it's a crime to lie to cops. Why should cops be above the law and be allowed to lie to the public? And more importantly, how ncan we trust a system that is allowed to lie when truth is the purported ideal of that system?

    Re: False Confessor Seeks New Trial (none / 0) (#3)
    by Patrick on Tue Jan 03, 2006 at 03:37:08 PM EST
    how ncan we trust a system that is allowed to lie when truth is the purported ideal of that system?
    I only wish the truth was the purported ideal of the system, but alas it's adversarial. Check me if I'm wrong, but the evidence that Marty is innocent relies on Confessions with offers of immunity - TL frequently says these are suspect at best. I tend to agree. Signed affidavits with a refusal to testify afterwards - Yeah, OK. next A repudiated confession - Very common, but not insignificant A nice juicy conspiracy - Virtually impossible to prove. The defense has had 14 years to perfect a story. I'm sure their witnesses are more, "honest." But, since I wasn't there, and don't have the benefit of hearing all the evidence as the jury did, I have to side with their finding. As an aside, if Mcready was proven to have purjured himself why was he still a cop? Or is the purjury charge just something that people think happened?

    Re: False Confessor Seeks New Trial (none / 0) (#4)
    by ltgesq on Tue Jan 03, 2006 at 03:46:46 PM EST
    the only time i have ever seen a cop prosecuted for perjury was when they testified for defendants. I have never seen a cop prosecuted for perjury when they testify consistent with the needs of the prosecuting attorney.

    Re: False Confessor Seeks New Trial (none / 0) (#5)
    by Patrick on Tue Jan 03, 2006 at 04:07:26 PM EST
    What you can prove and what you think is the truth are all too often very different.

    Re: False Confessor Seeks New Trial (none / 0) (#6)
    by Sailor on Tue Jan 03, 2006 at 04:19:15 PM EST
    Hey Patrick, Happy New Year! Let me expand on my point; defense lawyers aren't allowed to coerce testimony, prosecutors do so on a daily basis. What is more important or valuable than freedom?

    Re: False Confessor Seeks New Trial (none / 0) (#7)
    by Patrick on Tue Jan 03, 2006 at 04:27:48 PM EST
    Sailor, Back atcha, but defense attorneys can put forth just about any scenario without fear of sanctions. At least as long as the theory isn't humanly impossible. If these people have evidence that Marty is innocent. Force them to testify under penalty of prison. If they refuse keep them in until they do. If he's innocent and they know it and won't testify, his freedom (innocent)is more valuable to me than theirs is (Guilty at least of coverup).

    Re: False Confessor Seeks New Trial (none / 0) (#8)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Tue Jan 03, 2006 at 05:26:53 PM EST
    Patrick, Hate to break it to you laddie, but I've cross examined lots of cops where everyone knew they were lying and not one has ever been prosecuted for perjury. The fact of the matter is that most cops lie because they see their job as getting a conviction, not of finding the truth. Even when confronted with the truth, they will often just go concoct "evidence" to rebut the truth. The problem is that after someone is convicted wrongfully, getting some kind of evidentiary hearing to clear the guy is almost impossible without DNA evidence. In most states you have a very limited time in which to seek post conviction relief based upon new evidence of innocence, usually a year or less. Legislators hate those "endless appeals and delays which prevent justice from being carried out".

    Re: False Confessor Seeks New Trial (none / 0) (#9)
    by roger on Tue Jan 03, 2006 at 05:30:54 PM EST
    Personally, I'd say that about 10% of cops lie on a regular basis. The rest will sometimes even admit that they could have made a mistake. There are many cops out there, when they are judged as one, it is usually unwarranted.

    Re: False Confessor Seeks New Trial (none / 0) (#10)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Tue Jan 03, 2006 at 06:59:19 PM EST
    All, Here is an excellent ten part two year investigative report published in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette in late 1998 regarding misconduct at the Federal law enforcement level. Even though this piece is seven years old, it is still informative and a good read.

    Re: False Confessor Seeks New Trial (none / 0) (#11)
    by cpinva on Tue Jan 03, 2006 at 10:49:56 PM EST
    A repudiated confession - Very common, but not insignificant
    patrick, you left out "the rest of the story": the "confession" was never signed, and was written, not by the defendent, but by the detective. two critical omissions that should have swayed any juror with a half a brain to ignore it. that was the critical "evidence", resulting in a guilty verdict, since there apparently was no physical evidence linking him to the crimes. again, something that should have swayed the jury to acquit. you always leave or take something, from anywhere you go, just ask any parent. this case is similar to the laci peterson case: no physical evidence of any sort linking mr. peterson to his wife's death, no confession at all. geez, not even a determined cause of death. yet, the jury, desperately wanting to hold someone, anyone, accountable for this nice girl's apparent murder, convicted her husband. they convicted him because he was a dog, not because there was any actual evidence he was guilty.

    Re: False Confessor Seeks New Trial (none / 0) (#12)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Wed Jan 04, 2006 at 10:37:16 AM EST
    Cops lie very often, and virtually every one involved in the system knows it. But, unfortunately, judges are quite reluctant to say so, even when it's extremely obvious. I worked on a case where a cop notorious for "Driving While Black" stops, and for lying, took it one step too far and claimed he could smell the "distinct odor of cocaine" through the closed trunk of a car and through two closed containers inside the trunk. I put in a motion with scientific evidence showing this is impossible - we got the A-1 felony indictment dismissed but the judge felt like he had to come up with another (bogus)reason to suppress. And I've never seen a cop prosecuted for perjury. I had another case where my client was clearly (to me anyway) innocent but he got convicted because the cops lied on the stand and his witnesses were basically all his family members, and thus considered "interested witnesses," while the cops were considered neutral. This is a major problem - I wish there was some sort of "interested witness" instruction for cops. I know that could be problematic but they're really biased toward getting a conviction - much more so than, say, someone who doesn't know anyone involved and just happens to see something. Also, I wish judges would not be so afraid to come out and say they don't believe the cop, when he or she is obviously lying. Lots of times they'll say that in private but not publically.

    Re: False Confessor Seeks New Trial (none / 0) (#13)
    by Patrick on Thu Jan 05, 2006 at 10:26:32 AM EST
    Cops lie very often, and virtually every one involved in the system knows it.
    So do some lawyers, but that's not grounds enough to condemn the whole profession. Or paint all lawyers as liars. If someone wants their point of view to be taken seriously, they should generally avoid such sweeping comments. Except here, where everyone but cops are considered innocent until proven guilty. Which I believe Marty was. There's nothing here to indicate the officers perjured themselves. Given 14 years, I could come up with with a pretty convincing story myself. Those not bound by the truth have not trouble filling in the gaps left by those who are. Anecotdal evidence, doesn't prove anything except that almost anything is possible. Now, if marty is innocent, I hope that his lawyers are smart enough to prove it, and have no problem with him getting his case reviewed. However, IMO, it should take more than testimony, about an event which occurred 14 years ago, from people who have a interest in the case, to have a jury verdict, that was proper, overturned.