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Man freed after 17 years in prison gets law degree

By Frank Eltman

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, May 24 2014 11:33 a.m. MDT

GARDEN CITY, N.Y. — A man who spent 17 years in prison before a court said he might be innocent in the murder of his parents is due to receive his law degree Sunday, vowing to work to exonerate wrongly convicted prisoners.

"It's a major hurdle," Martin Tankleff told The Associated Press in an interview at the Long Island law firm where he works as a paralegal. "Graduation is the first step, and then the next step is actually passing the bar."

Tankleff was arrested in 1988 on the first day of his senior year in high school and accused of killing his parents, Seymour and Arlene Tankleff, who were brutally attacked in their home in an exclusive Long Island enclave. He initially confessed after a detective lied to him saying his injured father had identified him as the killer, but he quickly recanted. Tankleff was convicted in 1990 and sentenced to 50 years in prison.

But in December 2007, he was freed after an appellate court said key evidence in his trial had been overlooked and he was entitled to a new trial. Prosecutors opted against a second trial, citing the passage of time and changes in the law since Tankleff was arrested.

Now 42, Tankleff is married with a 17-year-old stepdaughter. He received a bachelor's degree in sociology from Hofstra University in 2009 and graduates this weekend from Touro Law School on Long Island. As an attorney — he takes the bar exam in August — he vows to help wrongly convicted prisoners.

In September, he will become executive director of a newly formed Long Island-based organization that will do work similar to that of the better-known Innocence Project. That organization, co-founded by well-known attorney Barry Scheck, was among the groups that helped work to free Tankleff.

Scheck said in a statement that he is "tremendously proud" of Tankleff.

"The terrible injustice he endured has no doubt given him a unique understanding of the flaws in the system that will make him a powerful advocate for those trying to prove their innocence," Scheck said. "As he knows all too well, we can certainly use more great litigators willing to take on this extremely difficult work."

Virginia attorney Stephen Braga, who represented Tankleff and the defendants in the notorious West Memphis Three case, said attending Sunday's graduation and participating in Tankleff's "hooding ceremony" will be "one of the great honors of my life."

"During the 13 years I represented Marty in the legal odyssey to achieve his freedom and exoneration, his energy, enthusiasm, optimism and intelligence were constant aids to his cause," Braga said.

Tankleff met his future wife while speaking to students at a Long Island college about his incarceration. They married in 2010. Laurie Tankleff, 39, described him as "an amazing husband, amazing father." She is studying criminal justice and dreams someday of working with her husband.

This year, he settled a wrongful conviction lawsuit against New York state for nearly $3.4 million.

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