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New York Times
April 24, 2008
By BRUCE LAMBERT
WESTBURY, N.Y. — The very first thing Martin H. Tankleff ever looked up on the Internet was martytankleff.org, the elaborate Web site created in the campaign to free him. Having spent 17 years in prison, Mr. Tankleff was an Internet novice, and pulled the site up on a cousin’s computer, finding “Marty Didn’t Do It” T-shirts ($15), an extensive archive of legal briefs, and the Marty Blog, which chronicles his life and times. He clicked and scrolled through it with delight.
“The guys who set it up did a great job,” Mr. Tankleff said on Tuesday afternoon in his first extended interview since his release in December.
That is when an appellate court, citing new evidence implicating others, unanimously overturned his convictions for the murders of his parents, which he insists he did not commit. Since then, Mr. Tankleff, 36, has tried to catch up with relatives and friends and reintegrate into civilian life, while applying for a driver’s license and learning to navigate a cellphone.
He aspires to become a lawyer who works with the wrongfully convicted, and has already made public appearances advocating the cause.
“I think I have the education for it — and the experience,” Mr. Tankleff said with a smile as he sat on the couch at his aunt’s home here. Referring to letters from desperate prisoners seeking help with appeals, he said: “I know what those guys are like. I was one of them.”
Mr. Tankleff estimates that 5 percent of the prison population might be innocent; more than 200 people have been exonerated through DNA evidence alone over the past 20 years. “There are just a ton of cases,” he said. “Unfortunately you don’t hear a lot about them, because they’re not high-profile.”
Mr. Tankleff remains on a legal roller coaster. Though the court overturned his convictions, it left standing the original indictments in the 1988 murders. At first the Suffolk County district attorney, Thomas J. Spota, indicated that Mr. Tankleff would be retried; he later announced that the charges would be dropped.
Then the New York State attorney general, Andrew M. Cuomo, was appointed as a special prosecutor to reinvestigate the case, a move that kept the indictments open. He is expected to announce on June 16 whether Mr. Tankleff should be prosecuted again.
“Since then I’ve been in a legal limbo,” Mr. Tankleff said of Mr. Cuomo’s appointment. “The system still isn’t working, because I’m still under indictment.”
Another study is being conducted by the State Investigation Commission. At the time of Mr. Tankleff’s initial prosecution, the commission issued a scathing report on corruption in Suffolk County law enforcement, and cited the lead detective in the Tankleff case as having lied at another murder trial.
There is also what Mr. Tankleff views as the unfinished business of prosecuting the real killers, people he says acted at the behest of his father’s embittered business partner. One man he accuses, Glenn Harris, has said he was the getaway driver for the attackers. The others he points to have publicly denied involvement, though several people testified that one of them had made private admissions.
If he is cleared of the charges, Mr. Tankleff said, “We would be in a great position to help whatever law enforcement agency is looking to pursue the real individuals.”
Mr. Tankleff said he wanted to personally thank everyone who helped him. “If it wasn’t for them, I would not be sitting here today.” But while his case is pending, he has refrained from contacting witnesses because “I don’t want anyone to say I have influenced them.”
As a free man, Mr. Tankleff has faced numerous adjustments, not least the bureaucratic requirements of the Department of Motor Vehicles. “One of the most difficult things was actually getting a photo ID,” he said. “They ask you for six forms of ID,” like utility and phone bills. “I kind of looked at one of them and said, ‘Do you know where I’ve been for the last few years?’ ”
Because of news coverage, Mr. Tankleff does not always need identification. He recalled being stopped in Lower Manhattan by a man who said: “I got to ask you a strange question. Were you the innocent guy who just got out of jail after 17 years?”
Several people who followed the Tankleff case have donated money to help him get started again. For now he is living with a cousin, Ron Falbee, and is applying for campus housing at Hofstra University, where he is studying sociology and philosophy.
Mr. Tankleff said he attended Passover Seders over the weekend at Mount Sinai, a community in Suffolk County, and at the home of the private detective who uncovered much of the new evidence in the case, Jay Salpeter. “Passover celebrates Jews being freed from slavery, so it was a kind of significant day,” he said.
Mr. Salpeter and Mr. Tankleff had met only once before his release, but now, Mr. Salpeter said: “He’s become like an extended member of my family.”
“To be to able to enjoy him out of jail and watch him grow is wonderful,” he added. “I have a bond with him.”
Mr. Tankleff says he is so busy that he doesn’t even have time for dating. He goes almost every day to the Roosevelt Field office of Bruce A. Barket, one of his lawyers — commuting by bicycle — to work on his case and assist on other cases. He hopes to graduate from Hofstra and go on to law school.
He has spoken about his case and the issue of wrongful convictions to classes at Williams College and John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He attended a bar association meeting in Manhattan on wrongful convictions and was accorded a standing ovation at a Legal Aid Society gathering in Brooklyn.
On Friday he submitted testimony at a State Senate committee hearing in support of a bill to require the videotaping of confessions. A founder of the Innocence Project, Barry Scheck, has called the legislation Marty’s Law.
A much-disputed confession, which Mr. Tankleff did not write or sign and which he repudiated, was the central issue in his trial. The homicide detectives who interrogated him acknowledged lying to him about evidence — including telling him that his father had regained consciousness and named him as the attacker — and did not tape his statements.
“I absolutely believe that any interview and interrogation should be fully recorded, from the time you walk into a police station to the time you walk out,” Mr. Tankleff said. “It benefits everybody; it protects everybody.”
Although Arlene and Seymour Tankleff were killed nearly 20 years ago, Mr. Tankleff says he thinks about their deaths every day. After his release, he visited their graves at a cemetery in Pinelawn, in Suffolk County.
Mr. Salpeter recalled that when he and Mr. Tankleff watched a “48 Hours” program about the case, Mr. Tankleff “looked away when it came to the crime scenes of his parents.”
Despite 6,338 days behind bars, which Mr. Tankleff dutifully crossed off calendars over the years, he says that he tries not to dwell on the past. “Marty just doesn’t show anger or bitterness,” his cousin Ron said. “He just doesn’t.”
Mr. Tankleff was evasive about whether he would sue Suffolk County: “I would follow the advice of my attorneys,” he replied. Asked if he would write a book, he said only, “First get the case over, then the world is my oyster.”
“I just wish the case would be over,” he said, referring to it as “the gorilla on my back.”
But with his parents dead and 17 years of freedom lost, he said, the case “will always be part of me.”