This New Year, Find An Obsession

By Bob Brody (NY Daily News)
December 30, 2012

In a small town on Long Island more than 20 years ago, 17-year-old Martin Tankleff discovered his parents Arlene and Seymour at home slashed and bludgeoned to death. Martin wound up being charged with the double murder, then convicted, despite pleading innocent, and sentenced to life in prison.

More than 10 years ago, a private investigator decided to dig into the case. The PI had obtained evidence to suggest that others had committed the double homicide and framed Tankleff. But he needed help and looked to enlist my friend Lonnie Soury in the cause. Lonnie, a Manhattanite who runs a small public relations firm and often handles clients in legal matters, accepted the role pro bono.

Everyone does a good deed now and then. But Lonnie’s actions were, to my mind, somewhat out of character for him. Love him though I do, I’d known him to be a slick, fast-talking operator who craved the limelight.

My next conversation with Lonnie quickly turned to Marty Tankleff. The push to reopen the case was rife with roadblocks, he told me, particularly a district attorney who faced apparent conflicts of interest and a media that remained indifferent. Lonnie went into the details at some length, his teeth clenched in frustration.

Every time Lonnie and I connected, the talk eventually came around to Tankleff. About a year later, Lonnie took me to lunch at the Harvard Club, then a client of his. Once again, it was Marty this and Marty that. The case was hard going: delays, depositions, a judge who was trying to throw it all out of court. Lonnie ranted filibuster-style over the lunchtime hush — “How can the judge be so blind?” — so loudly that heads turned to see the cause of the commotion.

As we left, I asked him, “Why are you doing this?”

“Because I have to,” he said.

In the coming years, Lonnie was all Marty all the time. He conferred with lawyers, worked reporters, strategized next steps. He and his colleagues established a website about Tankleff, recruited supporters and garnered media attention.

The case became his grand obsession, and he paid a high price. He devoted so much time to the case that he lost clients and alienated friends, including me. His wife and children questioned his sanity, and he entered therapy.

Then, finally, came the unexpected. Even though the local court denied a retrial, public and private support kept growing. Two years later, new evidence and the ensuing newspaper headlines forced the case out of local courts. In December 2007, a state appellate court unanimously overturned the convictions. Suddenly, Marty Tankleff was out of prison and back with family and friends after 17 years behind bars.

Lonnie had proven instrumental in getting Tankleff released. In going the extra mile for someone else, in sustaining an act of altruism over five years, he transcended his own past — and personality — to deliver a humanitarian coup. In saving Marty, Lonnie saved himself.

After the Tankleff case, Lonnie promised his friends and family that he was obsessed no more and would resume a normal life.

But that never happened. He co-founded False Confessions, a public advocacy organization committed to bringing attention to wrongful convictions that result from false confessions in criminal prosecutions — and reforming the system responsible.

In short order, then, Lonnie found himself recruited to help free Damien Echols, an innocent man on death row in Arkansas. Echols was eventually released. Currently, Lonnie is pushing to overturn the wrongful convictions of former Police Officer Richard DiGuglielmo and abuser Jesse Friedman. And he’s somehow keeping his personal life on an even keel, too.

Come 2013, maybe we should all resolve to pull “a Lonnie” — a major good deed, or what we Jews call a mitzvah. Advocate for a cause beyond ourselves. Why would we do that? Maybe because, like my friend, we have to.

Brody, an executive and essayist in Forest Hills, blogs at letterstomykids.org.