The veteran prosecutor, Kennedy and King assassination investigator, best-selling author, who gives his age as "39, use your imagination," laments the direction the criminal justice system and the political process in general have taken in recent years -- and he doesn't see it getting better any time soon.
"In the country right now, the great divide that exists is getting deeper," the Brooklyn-born Tanenbaum said in a wide-ranging interview with UPI in advance of the Aug. 13 publication of his latest novel, "Tragic." "We need problem-solvers and not ideologues."
Tanenbaum said he uses his novels and protagonist Butch Karp to "deal with the kinds of moral questions that are confronting a lot of prosecutors in this country. We have to maintain the integrity of the system. ...
"My feeling ... is prosecutors from the attorney general to U.S. attorneys to local district attorneys have a tremendous obligation to maintain the dignity of the system. Anyone suggesting police use torture or [district attorneys] countenancing it by not being aggressive in investigating it are doing a terrible disservice."
Tanenbaum quit the Manhattan district attorney's office in 1977, fed up with how political it had become and upset decisions on whether to prosecute and what penalties to seek were based more on the politics of the moment than on the law or fairness.
He said he does not think plea bargains are appropriate in many cases because there are certain crimes that need to be fully punished, among them the case of Ariel Castro, who held three women hostage in his Cleveland home for a decade and was sentenced last week to life without parole plus 1,000 years after pleading guilty to 937 counts, including aggravated murder for jumping on the stomach of one of his captives to force her to miscarry -- a capital offense.
"He has violated every standard of human civilized conduct," Tanenbaum said. "He adversely affected each of these individuals beyond imagination. If we have a death penalty and don't use it -- there's no rational reason not to use it.
"By taking a plea, the prosecution is saying no one should have the death penalty."
With the ability to sit back and take a longer view, Tannenbaum, who now occasionally takes cases as a defense attorney, talked about the recent trial involving George Zimmerman, who shot and killed unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin as the youth walked to his father's house in a gated community in Sanford, Fla. Zimmerman was acquitted but the jury's decision has sparked widespread protests nationwide and demands the Justice Department pursue a civil rights violation case.
The case should never have been brought, Tanenbaum said.
"From the very beginning," he said, "having handled hundreds of homicide cases, Zimmerman struck me as a non-case. A tragedy occurred. The only witnesses to the scene were people who actually saw the deceased on top of the defendant, pummeling him with his fists."
Though Zimmerman may have provoked the incident by following Martin and confronting him, he did nothing illegal, Tanenbaum said. Once Martin got the upper hand, it was a clear case of self-defense and the police chief's decision not to bring charges immediately stained the entire prosecution case.
"Politics pressured prosecutors to level charges. ... You'd be hard-pressed to find killers who want to attack people who are calling up 911 [as Zimmerman did]. Following him wasn't a crime. The confrontation between the two of them is where the evidentiary chain begins ... reflects who was the aggressor at the time. The prosecution didn't have evidence to contradict the defendant's statement," he said.
"As tragic as this case is ... by going around and parading this issue as a racial issue ... is the very worst thing you can do."
When it comes to the question of whether someone who leaks secrets is a whistle-blower or a traitor, the only important question is whether the leak harmed the national security and put people in danger, he said when asked about WikiLeaks leaker Pfc. Bradley Manning, who faces a possible 136-year sentence, and National Security Agency secrets leaker Edward Snowden, who is seeking foreign asylum.
"If they compromised [national security], then they're not whistle-blowers. They're traitors," he said. "They threatened American lives. ... Where you have corruption and someone comes forward like the tobacco cases ... that person is a whistle-blower. ... Dealing with national security ... you really are on thin ice."
After leaving the Manhattan district attorney's office, Tanenbaum served as chief assistant counsel to the U.S. House Select Committee on Assassinations, charged with investigating the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King.
Tanenbaum said he took the job to learn the truth and quit when it became evident committee members weren't that interested in what really happened.
So, did Lee Harvey Oswald act alone?
"I don't believe Oswald could have been convicted based on the shoddy evidence they had, particularly with all the other evidence," he said, citing the statements of Dr. Charles Crenshaw, a young doctor who treated Kennedy when he was brought to Parkland Hospital in Dallas following the Nov. 22, 1963, shooting.
Crenshaw said one of the bullets entered Kennedy's throat from the front right while a second bullet entered his head from the side "consistent with [a shot fired from the] grassy knoll," Tanenbaum said. But Crenshaw was never even questioned by the Warren Commission and his testimony was ignored by the House committee.
To top it off, when CIA officer David Atlee Phillips was presented with inconsistencies in his testimony regarding Oswald's reported trip to Mexico to seek help from Cuba, he walked out. Tanenbaum said Phillips at that point was guilty of contempt of Congress if not perjury -- "and the committee decided to do nothing.
"I tried to remind them that there is no compromising truth when a murder case is investigated notwithstanding the status of individuals. ...
"I believe without question there were shots that came from the side, the grassy knoll. ...
"Our whole system rests upon an idea we will abide by and use as the sacraments of who we are as a people, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights ... a moral contract that affects our soul," he said. "[That's why the] Warren Commission was so problematic.
"[Earl] Warren was a great chief justice. In the justice system he made the Bill of Rights a reality for law enforcement and for the accused in crime. He has his name on the commission and participated but did not serve the best interests of our country."
"Tragic" by Robert K. Tanenbaum tells the tale of a murder-for-hire in a New York longshoremen's union. Union boss Charlie Vitelli orders the death of rival Vince Carlotta and is incensed when District Attorney Butch Karp accuses him of orchestrating the killing during the trial of the flunkies who actually did the deed. (Gallery Books, publication date Aug. 13, $26)
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