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Exonerated Man Helps Launch National Innocence Investigation Company

Posted Oct 24, 2008 5:14 PM CDT
By Rachel M. Zahorsky

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Corrected: Fortress Global Investigations, a New York City-based investigative firm, will officially launch a national investigation company focused on overturning wrongful conviction cases at a press conference today.

The endeavor, Fortress Innocence Group, is the brainchild of retired New York City police detective Jay Salpeter, Martin Tankleff and Robert Seiden, a former Manhattan prosecutor and president of Fortress Global Investigations. Salpeter initially uncovered evidence leading to the exoneration of Martin Tankleff for the 1988 murder of his parents.

“When innocent individuals are wrongly convicted of crimes that others have committed, the true perpetrators remain at large," Tankleff said in a press release (PDF). “There are thousands of wrongly convicted individuals now serving time in prisons nationwide who don’t belong there and need the help of an experienced investigative team like ours.”

Tankleff was 17 when he was arrested for killing his parents in their Long Island, New York home. He was sentenced to 50 years to life and served more than 17 years in prison before his release. “This is a tragedy for the individual and society,” he said.

The joint venture, which employs four full-time investigators and two interns, is the first of its kind and will utilize a large national network of 75 to 100 subcontractors who are affiliated with Fortress Global Investigations, Seiden said. Once FIG agrees to take a case, after a careful review process that includes a 10-page questionnaire, possible multiple polygraph tests and the presence of exculpatory evidence, the company will partner with different law firms to handle the legal battle and foot the bill at a reduced rate.

“When we worked on Marty’s [Tankleff] case, Kelley Drye [& Warren] and Jennifer O’Connor at WilmerHale paid our investigative fees, and we realized these law firms needed these cases,” Seiden said in an interview today. “They need to get young associates in court, doing appeals, and getting experience they would never otherwise get.” Seiden noted that many states require law firms to devote attorney time to pro bono work.

The FIG expands upon the work of other innocence initiatives, such as Northwestern University’s Medill Innocence Project, where undergraduate journalism students investigate cases, and the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law’s Innocence Project, which focuses on exonerating people through DNA testing.

The company's uniqueness is its focus "on reinvestigation: where the police got it wrong, they were framed" and false confessions, by a national team of investigative experts, forensic experts, former prosecutors, and leaders of the FBI and CIA, Seiden said.

Assemblyman Michael Gianaris, the sponsor of a bill to create an Innocence Commission in New York aimed at eliminating wrongful convictions in the state, also supports the project.

"One innocent person spending years in prison for crimes he or she did not commit is one too many, and recent history proves the problem in New York is more widespread than anyone would like to admit,” Gianaris wrote in an e-mail. According to Innocence Project data, 23 people have been exonerated in New York alone through DNA testing after being convicted of crimes they didn’t commit.

Corrected 11 a.m. Oct. 27 to note that the press conference is today and to clarify that Salpeter initially uncovered evidence in the Martin Tankleff case before bringing it to Fortress Global Investigations.

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