Barry Pollack on the Importance of Pro Bono Work

Providing criminal defense representation to indigent clients has always been an important part of my practice. The work is exceedingly important, sharpens my trial skills, maintains my relationships with area prosecutors and judges, and is tremendously rewarding. I am part of the panel of lawyers qualified for court-appointed federal felony representation in both the District of Maryland and the District of Columbia. I routinely have one active court-appointed case at any given time. In addition, I have done myriad pro bono cases over the years.

One of the most interesting, and high profile, of these cases was the representation of Martin Tankleff, who was convicted and sentenced to 50 years to life for the 1988 brutal murders of both of his parents in a wealthy area of Long Island when Mr. Tankleff was 17-years-old. I began representing Mr. Tankleff in 1995, when I learned of his case from an intern in my firm who went to high school with Mr. Tankleff. I represented Mr. Tankleff in federal habeas proceedings arguing that his confession, uncorroborated by any physical evidence, was false and had been coerced. Ultimately, the federal courts did not overturn Mr. Tankleff’s conviction, ruling that the tactics used to obtain his confession “barely” passed constitutional muster.

In 2003, we filed a post-conviction motion in New York state court arguing that Mr. Tankleff was innocent and, based on newly obtained evidence, was entitled to a new trial. We presented testimony over a period of weeks demonstrating that Mr. Tankleff’s parents were killed in a murder-for-hire scheme orchestrated by Mr. Tankleff’s father’s business partner. While the trial court failed to credit our witnesses and denied Mr. Tankleff a new trial, the state appellate court unanimously reversed that decision. Mr. Tankleff was released from prison in December 2007, after serving more than 17 years in prison for crimes he did not commit, and a special prosecutor was appointed in the case. In July 2008, the special prosecutor dismissed all charges against Mr. Tankleff.

I received a number of honors for my work on behalf of Mr. Tankleff, including the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers 2008 Gideon Award. I was also honored with the Defender of Innocence Award by the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project in July of this year. Mr. Tankleff’s extraordinary story is told in a recent book, A Criminal Injustice: A True Crime, a False Confession, and the Fight to Free Marty Tankleff, by Richard Firstman and Jay Salpeter. Far more important than the generous acknowledgements our legal efforts have received, was the opportunity to work throughout the years with an extraordinarily dedicated and talented team of pro bono lawyers, investigators, and expert witnesses to right a grave injustice and return Mr. Tankleff to his surviving family members who have never wavered in their support of him and their faith in his innocence.

Barry Pollack
White Collar and FCPA Practices