Martin Tankleff’s legal ambitions took root roughly two years into his 50-year prison sentence. The circumstances were, to put mildly, unforeseen, abrupt and certainly unwanted. Yet even in those early years, an innate juridical mind was evident. He quickly became a jailhouse lawyer—a colloquial term referring to a prisoner who, through no formal training, assists fellow inmates in their cases. He worked on hundreds of cases, kept ledgers on all, compiled reams of research. All the while the task that loomed largest was proving the innocence of one particular inmate—one accused and convicted of the double murder of his mother and father. That inmate was him.
September 7, 1988 was the first day of Martin Tankleff’s senior year of high school. In the early morning hours, 17-year-old Tankleff awoke in his Belle Terre home to find his father unconscious and bleeding from the neck, his mother already dead. The next several hours would ultimately decide the next two decades of his life.
According to the Innocence Project, a non-profit that works to free those wrongly convicted, there are several leading factors that contribute to wrongful convictions: incentivized informants, inadequate defense, misapplication of forensic science, government misconduct, false confessions or admissions and eyewitness misidentification. Several of those played a part in Tankleff’s conviction, but none were more damning than his own false confession.
In those fateful early morning hours, Suffolk County police were able to coerce a confession out of Tankleff, but only after a detective lied to him, claiming his father Seymour had awoken and identified Martin as the attacker. Not only had his father not accused Martin, Seymour never even regained consciousness before passing away. Martin quickly recanted before ever learning of the lie and never signed the written confession penned by police. Nevertheless, in 1990, a jury convicted him based largely on that disputed confession.
In such cases, criminal defense attorneys are burdened with the responsibility of convincing jurors that innocent individuals are capable of confessing to horrific crimes they didn’t commit—a nearly impossible task, as no sane individual could imagine the circumstances in which they would do such a thing. Yet as improbable as they seem, false confessions are actually fairly common.
There have been 2,120 exonerations in the U.S. since 1989, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Of those, 253 involved a false confession, including 37 in New York—the second highest among states.
Even so, proving that this case’s false confession was in fact false would take 17 years of work done by an innocent man behind bars. “I had binders of research material,” Tankleff recalled. “I was represented by some of the best lawyers from all over the country. I would write letters to other lawyers or retired judges or former prosecutors to get involved and everyone would say, ‘you’re represented by counsel,’ and I’d say, ‘but I’m still in prison. I don’t care how good they are, the system still isn’t functioning well.’ I felt there was always someone who could get involved or should get involved at some point.”
Ten years ago, a New York State Appellate Court ruled unanimously that Tankleff’s conviction should be vacated and he deserved a new trial based on evidence that was never presented during the original proceedings. The following year, governor Eliot Spitzer appointed attorney general Andrew Cuomo to serve as special prosecutor in the case. In June 2008, after a six-month investigation, Cuomo’s office announced it would not retry Tankleff, stating, “The evidence is insufficient to conclude or to prove beyond a reasonable doubt” that Tankleff committed the murders.
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 169 inmates were exonerated in 2016, the most in any year since the organization began collecting data in 1989. Numbers like that cement Tankleff’s certainty that the system is still broken and reinforced his desire to turn what was at first a necessary interest in the law into a lifelong career. In the spring of 2017, Tankleff passed the New York State bar exam after graduating from Hofstra University and Touro Law School. He is now working at the Manhattan-based law firm Metcalf & Metcalf as a criminal defender, pending admission to the bar association, where, in part, he takes on wrongful convictions. He maintains the “goal at any criminal defense law firm should be to prevent an innocent person from being wrongfully convicted. Tragically though, we know the system doesn’t work perfectly well. It fails quite a bit.”
To help fix what’s broken, Tankleff has worked extensively with organizations dedicated to freeing and assisting the innocent, most notably the Innocence Project. Almost immediately after his release from prison, Tankleff met Barry Scheck who, along with Peter Neufeld, founded the Innocence Project in 1992. Since then, he has worked with the organization to testify in various capacities. “Marty’s participation in advocacy work has made an indelible mark on wrongful conviction reform,” said Rebecca Brown, Innocence Project’s director of policy. “Here in New York State, Marty testified numerous times before the legislators and participated in trainings on the need for innocence reform for the NYPD, building support for the value of police practice reform among not only law enforcement, but also lawmakers.” His work has had a tangible result. In January, now-governor Cuomo passed legislation entitled New York Promise that includes criminal justice reform. “Marty’s voice,” Brown added, “was instrumental to the success of the campaign. He helped to amend police practices related to two issues: eyewitness identification procedures and recording of interrogations.”
Recently, Tankleff’s role with the Innocence Project has expanded. He has become one of seven to be chosen to the organization’s national Exoneree Advisory Group. “[The Innocence Project] said, ‘This movement is growing consistently. How do we create an advisory committee that can feedback to the Innocence Project on innocence issues, readjustment to society, reintegration, the innocence network conferences?” Tankleff said. “We discuss any number of issues—what is everybody doing, how to raise awareness, is anybody doing any media projects? It really is a very rewarding position.”
Tankleff also works with Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE), a group that helps exonerees reintegrate into society. “When people come out they struggle with job placement, housing. CURE works with local and national organizations to help people get readjusted.”
One of the leading contributors to wrongful convictions, Tankleff said, is the lack of resources, a cause he is championing. “The Innocence Project has an operating budget of $18 million. With the success that they have, imagine if a billionaire donated $100 million or even $25 million. They could increase their staff, which would equate to more innocent people securing freedoms.”
Ultimately, it has taken passionate individuals committed to the cause to create the results witnessed thus far. “You’re finding more and more lawyers who are in their second or third decade in litigation taking one of these cases on and once they finish that case they’re looking for the next one because they’ve realized that success in a wrongful conviction case is more rewarding than winning a $25 million judgment because the success is you’re giving someone their life back, their freedom back, you’ve cleared their name, given them their humanity, their dignity, their respect and their integrity back.”
Tankleff’s current work is to help others, but it is also to heal himself. “It’s a passion… when you meet exonerees you’d think they just want [to have] their settlement and go become a recluse and hide away somewhere. Most exonerees are very out there and advocates.”
They advocate because they know the worth of freedom, not just in the physical form but the freedom to be known as an innocent man. “[We knew] an exoneree whose codefendant died while they were in jail and when he got out he told me he felt bad. I asked him why. He said it was because his codefendant didn’t live to see this day. I said, ‘You have to think of it differently. If you didn’t fight, his memory would have been as a convicted murderer. Because you fought, his memory is of an innocent man who died in prison.’”