Martin Tankleff was admitted to the New York State bar Wednesday in the same appellate court where his wrongful conviction in the 1988 killing of his parents was overturned.
Tankleff, 48, was just 17 when his parents were found stabbed and bludgeoned to death in their home on suburban Long Island. He served nearly two decades of a 50-year to life sentence before his conviction was vacated.
“Today was a historic day, not only for the fact that I was admitted as an attorney, but also for the fact that two of the judges that freed me in 2007 were part of the swearing-in panel,” Tankleff said.
He becomes one of a handful of exonerees practicing law in the state, according to Lonnie Soury, whose public relations firm led the campaign to free Tankleff. His admission to the state bar was confirmed by Lucian Chalfen, spokesman for the New York State Unified Court System.
“It’s been a very, very long battle and now I can do a lot more good for the criminal justice system and society,” Tankleff told reporters, holding his newly issued “certificate of good standing” as an attorney.
He was in prison in the early to mid-1990s “fighting for my life” when he decided he wanted to study law, Tankleff said.
“One of the biggest issues that I’ve addressed since I’ve been released is the need for electronic recording of interviews and interrogations,” he said. “I think that does protect everyone involved … If (his) interrogation was recorded, I wouldn’t have spent almost 18 years in prison.”
Tankleff said he’ll continue teaching at Touro College and Georgetown University, and advocating criminal justice reform and addressing wrongful convictions. He earned his law degree at Touro Law Center.
Tankleff settled a wrongful imprisonment lawsuit against the state in 2014 for nearly $3.4 million. In 2018, he reached a $10 million settlement with Suffolk County, CNN affiliate WABC-TV reported.
An appellate court in Brooklyn vacated his conviction in 2007 and all charges against Tankleff were dismissed the following year. The court ruled that Tankleff probably would not have been convicted if newly discovered evidence at the time had been presented at trial in 1990.
When police arrived at the family home in Belle Terre, Tankleff was questioned and told that his father had awakened from a coma and accused him of the crime. Suffolk County police investigators extracted a confession from Tankleff that was used to convict him.
Tankleff “repeatedly and consistently” told police that a business partner of his father was responsible, court documents said. The businessman maintained that he was not involved and dismissed the assertion as “ridiculous.”
A team of supporters aided bid for exoneration
Since his June 1990 conviction, Tankleff had maintained his innocence and fought from his prison cell to clear his name. A team of supporters assisted him in securing his exoneration, including Barry Scheck of The Innocence Project, a national litigation and public policy organization, and Jay Salpeter, a New York City detective turned private investigator.
In a 2018 opinion piece for CNN, Tankleff drew parallels between his case and that of Brendan Dassey, an intellectually impaired Wisconsin teen whose lawyers said gave a coerced confession to murder at age 16. A federal appeals court in 2017 upheld the confession.
“As a seventeen-year-old, I was manipulated during interrogation into confessing — falsely — to killing my own parents. And just like the courts may have failed to protect Dassey, they failed to protect me,” Tankleff wrote.
“After my beloved parents were murdered in our Long Island home in 1988, police questioned me for hours with no attorney present, insisted I was guilty, and falsely claimed both that my father had implicated me before dying and that my hair had been found in my mother’s hands.
“Terrified, I began to question whether I had blacked out and committed these crimes,” he wrote at the time. “Encouraging this line of thinking, police eventually suggested incriminating scenarios: Could I have used the watermelon knife on the kitchen counter to stab my mother? Could I have used the barbells in my room to attack my father? To escape the nightmare of interrogation, I eventually endorsed their leading questions — even though I did not kill the parents I loved.”