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A Tale of Two Murders

How the Internet gets media coverage for a convicted killer

- August 1, 2005

In the spring of 1981, the papers were filled with stories of kids killing kids. All were black, urban and poor. Then I came across a story that stopped me cold. It was a report of the trial of two neighborhood teenagers in the 1979 murder of 13-year-old Johnny Pius. He had been beaten in a Long Island schoolyard. And then—horrible to contemplate—six marble-sized rocks were stuffed down his throat. A week later, four teenagers from his neighborhood were pulled in by the Suffolk County police—among them a kid in Johnny's homeroom. One confessed. Now, I read in the Times, the first two kids have been convicted.

All of these teenagers were white. Suburban. Catholic. In a word: newsworthy.

So I sent a story proposal to the New York Times Magazine, where I was a frequent contributor. I asked: How could kids stuff stones into Johnny's mouth and feel no remorse? How could one of them sit in a classroom looking at Johnny's empty chair and not break down? How did a middle-class subdivision in Smithtown produce such monsters?

The Times assigned the piece, and I headed out to Long Island. In my first few days of reporting, I interviewed the victim's mother, the jury foreman, the Suffolk Country District Attorney and his chief prosecutor. I read 1,000 pages of pre-trial testimony and hundreds of pages of police reports. I examined the physical evidence. And, reluctantly, I had to conclude that I knew a great deal more than the police did when they pulled those four teens over and "interviewed" them until one confessed.

The physical evidence? Didn't implicate the kids.

The official timeline of the crime? Impossible.

Information about the victim and his family that the police missed? Massive.

The neighborhood kids, I decided, almost certainly didn't kill Johnny. There were, from my reporting, at least two suspects that the police might have pursued — but because they'd already extracted a confession, they had no interest in either.

I then researched confessions in Suffolk County murder cases. An eye-opener, to say the least. In l976, a guy swore he'd beaten a man to death; in fact, the victim had been strangled. Another suspect had a phone book placed against his head—and a cop slammed a concrete block against it as many as a hundred times. After another suspect had a piece of paper tied to his penis, detectives held him over a paper shredder. Was it any wonder that, in the 1970s, almost every murder suspect "confessed" in Suffolk—or that this county's confession rate for murders was as much as 75% higher than the most successful homicide squads in America?

I told Martin Arnold, deputy editor of the Times Magazine, what I had learned. Marty, a Polk Award winner, had seen this movie before. "If they find your car burning by the side of the road," he told me, "we'll know you got the story." But he dutifully sent me on to Edward Klein, the magazine's editor. This was not the story Klein had assigned; it looked like news to him. So he sent me down to Arthur Gelb, who presided over the daily paper. Gelb thought I had the makings of a fine Sunday magazine story and sent me back to Ed Klein. I wrote a draft, though I knew it was a doomed effort.

After the Times rejected the piece, Ed Kosner gave it a new home at New York. I got a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism and did many more months of reporting. And in August and September of 1982, New York published "Trouble Boys"—its first two-part murder investigation.

I knew that magazine journalism has limited power to embarrass a judiciary system, so I approached the usual TV suspects, starting with "60 Minutes." Nobody bit. It became clear to me that the only way I'd get coverage for this miscarriage-of-justice story was by solving the crime. Lord knows, I had some intriguing leads—like the mark on Johnny's face. The cops said it matched the diamond tread of a Puma sneaker. None of the boys had Pumas when they were arrested. That wasn't a problem for the cops (or the jury): The kids had simply "discarded" their Pumas after the murder. (But why? No one knew about the mark on Johnny's face.) At my suggestion, a lawyer in the trial of another defendant in this murder asked the police forensic expert: "Could the mark have been made by a ring?" And, in a lovely moment right out of Hitchcock, an interested spectator in the courtroom removed a ring and pocketed it. I'd love to see that ring…

Every defendant was convicted. Everyone did time. There was an investigation sparked by a concerned judge—he'd so enraged the cops that they keyed his car—but it didn't lead to much. Some cops retired. A Smithtown kid who testified against one of his friends in this murder became a cop, and rose through the ranks; he is now said to be close to the county DA, who was the prosecutor in the Pius murder trials. Meanwhile, New York media potentates zoomed past Smithtown on their way to the Hamptons, unaware that the county which was their summer home had a darker, more Mississippian aspect.

Then, in l988, 17-year-old Marty Tankleff woke up one morning in Suffolk County to find his parents had been murdered. There was an obvious suspect—his father's business partner. The police were disinclined to reach out that far. They had Marty. And, soon enough, they had Marty's "confession." Marty Tankleff was convicted and sentenced to 50 years to life. Now 33, he has spent all his adult years in jail.

But this miscarriage-of-justice story is surely destined for a different ending. Not because Suffolk County has realized it made a mistake; these prosecutors would let Tankleff rot in jail rather than admit error and make themselves the target of lawsuits and investigations. No, the big difference between this case and the Pius murder is that Marty Tankleff has a website. And that site gives a very persuasive alternative theory of the case. Among a million other points:

"Although Marty 'confessed' to using a dumbbell, both the physician who treated Seymour [Marty's father] at the hospital and the forensic pathologist testified the weapon was likely a hammer. No hammer was ever recovered."

"Marty's shower had been searched exhaustively for blood, human tissue, or hairs or fibers belonging to his parents, including removing and analyzing the trap from the shower drain. All tests proved negative. The towels in his bathroom likewise exhibited no signs of blood. No drops of blood were found on the floor between the parents' bedroom, the study or Marty's bathroom."

You don't have a site without a community. Marty has a big one, and it's quite active. Because his site is richly detailed and well-argued, it made its way to many TV outlets. And because there's been an explosion of legal shows on network and cable TV, his case has had hours of prime-time exposure. That has generated more interest. Now you can click on the website and make a donation to Marty's defense fund. No wonder the Times runs regular updates on his efforts to win his release.

Injustice seems infinite, but these cases do end—and sometimes the end is a happy one. The Internet favors accountability. It thrives on controversy. It loves nothing better than for some unknown expert to toss a sprinkling of inconvenient facts into a narrative of ostensibly solid facts.kornbluth.jpg And when there's an innocent kid doing time for another man's murder to stir the pot, all manner of media pros who accelerate as they reach Suffolk County on their way to the Hamptons will stop in and take notice. At some point, a critical mass is reached, and things change.

So I see freedom ahead for Marty Tankleff. And that makes me wish the kids caught up in the Pius murder had been arrested and convicted in the Internet era—they might not have lost decades to a justice system that seems far more guilty than they'll ever be.

Jesse Kornbluth is a New York-based writer and the founder and editor of

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