January 3, 2008
Tankleff Says He Relishes Freedom

New York Times

In his first few days after winning his freedom from prison, Martin H. Tankleff — who was sent to prison 17 years ago for two murders he insists he never committed — relished the things that were little more than routine to him a half a lifetime ago.

He got up early and watched the sun rise, enjoyed the taste of fresh coffee that was brewed outside the confines of prison walls, and went on a ski trip to Elk Mountain in Pennsylvania. These past few days, Mr. Tankleff said, were mostly days of joy — all except for the moments on New Year’s Day when he stood in a cemetery and mourned at the grave sites of his parents, Seymour and Arlene Tankleff, who were found beaten and stabbed to death in their home in Belle Terre, on the North Shore of Long Island, on Sept. 17, 1988.

“It was beyond emotional,” he said of his trip to the grave sites. “But I had to go.”

Mr. Tankleff, now 36, was 17 at the time of the murders. Police suspicion fell on him, and at one point during a lengthy interrogation, he partly confessed to the killings, though he quickly recanted and refused to sign the confession written out for him by detectives. He was convicted anyway in 1990, and was sentenced to two consecutive terms of 25 years to life in prison.

Mr. Tankleff spoke of his days as a free man this afternoon at the New York City office of the law firm Baker, Botts. Standing alongside friends, relatives, and the lawyers who helped him win his freedom, Mr. Tankleff wore a broad smile and spoke of his plans to go to college, become a lawyer, and help defend wrongly accused people.

But he said he made another pledge that was equally important. His parents’ real killers have never been brought to justice, he said, and the detectives and prosecutors who falsely painted him as the killer and stole nearly two decades of his life should pay a small price as well.

“I look forward to the day when they sit in my shoes in a prison,” he said.

Mr. Tankleff contended at his trial, through appeals, and in countless letters from prison since then that he did not murder his parents, and fought to have the convictions overturned. On Dec. 28, he finally won that battle, when the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court in Brooklyn issued a unanimous decision voiding the verdicts, prompting his release from the Clinton Correctional Center in Dannemora, N.Y.

In reaching its decision, the court cited extensive new evidence pointing to a band of ex-convicts as the killers, acting at the behest of a former business partner of Seymour Tankleff’s.

The court ruled that the new evidence was so compelling that it likely would have changed the jury’s verdict, entitling Mr. Tankleff to a new trial. Then, on Wednesday, Thomas J. Spota, the Suffolk County district attorney, said he would dismiss all charges against Mr. Tankleff and ask Gov. Eliot Spitzer to appoint a special prosecutor to reinvestigate the case. That decision freed Mr. Tankleff from the prospect of a retrial and effectively cleared his name.

As he spoke about his long struggle on Thursday afternoon, Mr. Tankleff said he never gave up hope that he would someday win his release from prison. All along, he said, he kept up with life on the outside by paying close attention to the news, and he resisted the urge to immerse himself in the prison culture.

“I never lived in a prison,” he said. “I resided there.”

Mr. Tankleff said he has been struck in the past week by how some things have remained the same even after 17 years — like taxis speeding through the streets of New York City — while technology and other aspects of life have changed so immensely.

But Mr. Tankleff and his lawyers said that he, too, has changed. In prison he was known for hand-writing thousands of letters as part of his efforts to win his freedom. Mr. Tankleff still writes letters, his lawyers said — but now, he does it all by e-mail.

One of those lawyers, Bruce A. Barket, said he was thankful for Mr. Tankleff’s release, but deeply bothered that it had taken so long.

“Our justice system is deeply flawed, to allow somebody like Marty Tankleff to spend this much time in prison for a crime that others committed.”

Mr. Tankleff said he was eternally grateful that his lawyers, relatives, and supporters never stopped paying attention to his handwritten letters.

“It’s just been a long, long fight,” he said. “I never gave up. They never gave up.”