After 17 years in prison, Tankleff will fight for wrongfully accused

Martin Tankleff speaks at the Monroe Lecture Center at Hofstra University on Nov. 16 (LIR photo by Domenic Varuzza)

Imagine you’re 17 years old, starting your senior year of high school. You have your entire life ahead of you. But one day, your parents are found murdered in your home, and you are accused of killing them.

That is what happened to Long Island resident Martin Tankleff on Sept. 7, 1988.

“Instead of starting school, I started fighting for my life,” Tankleff said.

Tankleff spent the next 20 years fighting for his life. He was found guilty of a double murder and sentenced to 50 years to life in prison in 1990. After attempts of appeal all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court were unsuccessful, in 2007, an appellate division of the New York State Supreme Court court voted 4-0 in favor to overturn the Tankleff’s conviction.

“Serving time in prison when your innocent is a living hell,” Tankleff said in front of an audience at Hofstra University on Nov. 16.

Tankleff made the most of his time in prison. He was able to attend college and work in a law library. Since being freed, he enrolled in law school at Hofstra, where he is currently a student. His goal is to defend the wrongly accused so less people have to experience what he has gone through.

Martin Tankleff speaks at the Monroe Lecture Center at Hofstra University on Nov. 16 (LIR photo by Domenic Varuzza)

Martin Tankleff speaks at the Monroe Lecture Center at Hofstra University on Nov. 16 (Photo courtesy of Hofstra University)

According to “The Innocence Project,” there have been 278 post conviction DNA exonerations in the U.S. since 1989; the average prison time served in those cases is 13 years. Dr. Liena Gurevich, a sociology professor at Hofstra, said that as many as “10 percent of death row prisoners are wrongly accused.”

One way people are wrongly accused is though false confessions.

While he was being interrogated, police told Tankleff that they found his hair in his mother’s hand, and before he died, his father exclaimed that his son was the one who attacked them. When interrogations go on for long periods of time, police can often break the will of the accused and trick them into confessing their crime, only sometimes people will confess to crimes they did not commit.

In another case, police interrogated 14-year-old Michael Crowe for over 14 hours during a two-day span in 1998. Police convinced Crowe to say he stabbed his sister. He was eventually found innocent in 2002 due to DNA testing.

According to Tankleff, false convictions happen all the time. He blames what he described as a corrupt police department and law enforcement office.

“The Suffolk County D.A. ripped my life out,” he said.

Laura Molinari, a journalism student at Hofstra University, was present to hear Tankleff tell his story at the Monroe Lecture Center.

“It’s very important to think of the role police play, and not always believe them, as well as to get your own research and sources,” Molinari said.

The Hofstra conference was Tankleff’s second of the year. For him, telling his story is a way to raise public awareness about wrongfully accused victims.

“It’s important to tell my story, but I don’t want to make it my life story,” he said.