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BY ALFONSO A. CASTILLO
9:58 PM EDT, April 23, 2008
There is a wide-eyed quality about Martin Tankleff in every step that he takes as a free man after 17 years in prison. He prefers walking over taking cabs and marvels at how his iPod Nano can hold more than a thousand songs. But try as he might, he cannot escape the events of Sept. 7, 1988.
"I was in a crosswalk a few weeks ago in the city. Some guy says, 'Can I ask you a question?' I says, 'What's up?' He says, 'Are you that innocent guy who just got out of jail?" Tankleff, now 36, recalled. "I said, 'Yeah.'"
As much as Tankleff tries to assume a new life as a college student, cousin and uncle, he will forever be identified as the Belle Terre teen accused of brutally beating and slashing his parents, Arlene and Seymour, to death two decades ago.
In his first interview since having his conviction overturned and being released on bail, Tankleff -- who is still under indictment -- recalled the "deep shock and disbelief" he felt as his life began to unravel that dawn.
"[It was] like, 'This can't be happening. This must be a nightmare,'" Tankleff said, speaking from the Westbury home of his aunt, Marcella Falbee, just a few houses down from his cousin Ron Falbee's home, where Tankleff lives. "Nobody in your wildest imagination could think that life could be that bad in that moment."
The "nightmare" was compounded when police quickly zeroed in on Tankleff, then 17, as a suspect and interrogated him. He gave police a confession, after the lead detective tricked him, telling him his father had awoke from a coma and identified his son as his attacker.
"Had there been an electronic recording of what happened in that interrogation room, I wouldn't have served 17 years, and we all would know what really happened in there," said Tankleff, who plans to study law and one day defend the wrongfully convicted.
Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota has said it is not practical to re-try Tankleff but has stopped short of saying Tankleff is innocent. Before he could drop the charges, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo intervened and is reviewing the case.
In looking back, Tankleff disputed the notion that it may have been his own lack of emotion, both at the crime scene and on the witness stand, that convicted him. He pointed to evidence, including his frantic 911 call and testimony by a neighbor who said Tankleff ran from his house screaming "Murder! Murder!" that morning.
Tankleff said his feelings of shock left little room for grief.
"You couldn't fathom that this was actually real. You just couldn't imagine that it was actually happening," Tankleff said. "It's hard to become emotionally sad if you don't believe it's actually true."
Tankleff was convicted in 1990 and sentenced to 50 years to life in prison. He said jurors "got it wrong" by not focusing on the evidence in the case and his father's business partner, Jerry Steuerman. Tankleff's attorneys have claimed Steuerman recruited his parents' killers, Joseph Creedon and Peter Kent. The three men have denied any involvement and have not been charged.
"It's frustrating knowing that the criminal justice system doesn't function. ... They're still out there, doing God knows what. And I'm still indicted. Something's wrong with that picture," he said.
Tankleff said he avoided trouble in prison so he could continue his job in the law library, where he researched his case.
"I'd fall asleep with law journals on top of me and books on top of me," Tankleff said. "Guys used to always laugh that I would spend all my free time, instead of doing something fun, working on my case."
On birthdays, he would get together with inmates with similar birthdays, and cook and eat together. He absorbed every crumb of the outside world by watching television news magazines and documentaries, until last December when he got the call from his attorney, Bruce Barket. "By the time I started walking back to the cellblock, the jail knew," he said. "And [I heard] 'Congratulations' every step of the way."
Almost immediately after being released on bail, Tankleff tried to reclaim some normalcy in his life. He registered at Hofstra University, where he is studying sociology and philosophy and hopes to graduate with a bachelor's degree by the spring of 2009. He has already earned an associate's degree in prison.
When he is not in school, Tankleff can most often be found in Barket's Garden City law office -- writing a college paper on diversity in the criminal justice system, joking with the office support staff in passable Spanish and working on his case.
He has gone by his high school, but has mostly steered clear of his old neighborhood. "No offense, but until the case is over, I'll stay away from Suffolk, unless I have to go out there," he said.
Still looming over Tankleff is the murder indictment. He returns to court on June 16, at which time he hopes prosecutors will finally dismiss the case against him. Even if they don't, he says he is confident he will win in a new trial.
Ultimately, Tankleff said, he hopes to be able to focus on bringing to justice the people he says really killed his parents. He also wants the police and prosecutors who he said wronged him to be held accountable.
"We know who killed my parents. And hopefully somebody in law enforcement will actually follow the leads that we've given them," said Tankleff, who maintains he still misses his parents "every day."
Tankleff has no kind words for another member of his family -- his half-sister, Shari Mistretta, who has said she believes Tankleff is guilty of the murders, and who collected her half-brother's seven-figure inheritance upon his conviction. She later used her money to help her then-husband open a restaurant with K. James McCready, the lead detective in Tankleff's case. "And nobody thinks she was wrong?"
"Where was she? She wasn't there," Tankleff said, referring to his 2004-2005 hearings for a new trial. "If she was truly interested in hearing the truth, she would have done like every other family member and made an effort to go to court."
He would like to get a law degree and looks forward to getting married and starting a family. Despite lingering bitterness, Tankleff said his ordeal has made him a better person and a better advocate.
"I don't think it will ever be completely behind me. I think it will always be some part of my life," Tankleff said. "You ask people, 'Why did you become a lawyer?' Well, I think I'll have a good answer as to why I became a lawyer."
Staff writer Zachary R. Dowdy contributed to this report.
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