Martin Tankleff, who was released from prison in 2007 after serving 17 years on charges of killing his parents, will receive his law degree Sunday, and plans to establish a foundation to work to free prisoners who were wrongly convicted.
"It's another step in the journey that I have," Tankleff, 42, said Wednesday as he sat in the Garden City office where he works as a legal assistant.
"I've said this all along, that I one day want to become a lawyer and advocate on behalf of those who were wrongfully convicted, to make sure that what happened to me doesn't happen to anyone else. The system has too many innocent men incarcerated," he said.
The former Belle Terre resident was sentenced to 50 years to life in prison in 1990 after being convicted of killing his parents, Arlene and Seymour Tankleff, in 1988. His conviction was overturned by an appeals court in 2007 and the state attorney general's office decided in 2008 not to retry him.
He sued the state for false imprisonment and settled for $3.375 million in January. He has a separate lawsuit in federal court against Suffolk County.
He plans to take off work for two months to study for the bar exam, which he will take in late July, and will then become executive director in September of the foundation, yet to be named.
His four years at Touro Law in Central Islip were unusual, he said Wednesday as he sat next to his wife of four years, Laurie Pagano Tankleff, 39.
"Some of my classes where I had to choose research topics, I would incorporate what happened to me into almost everything I did," he said. While the law books and lecturers might say one thing, Tankleff said he would sometimes interrupt to say: "But, professor, that's not how it really is."
One of his professors in criminal law, Richard Klein, said Tankleff was "always involved and very active as a student. He was willing to share his personal experiences."
"It is really rare knowing a student who came in Day One knowing what he wanted to do. That was Marty," Klein said.
Tankleff said he did not know how to approach one course, in which the lecturer, Court of Claims Judge Mark Cohen, had been one of the Suffolk County prosecutors in his case.
"I approached him and said, 'You and I have a little bit of history here. How is this going to work out?' And he stuck out his hand and said, 'Marty, welcome to the class,' " Tankleff said, adding after a moment, "I got an A-plus."
He said he was also encouraged to take Cohen's class by Bruce Barket of Barket Marion Epstein & Kearon LLP of Garden City, who worked on his appeal and who has since hired Tankleff as a legal assistant.
"Bruce said to me: 'Marty, you can't run from these people, because one day when you're admitted to the bar you're going to have to appear before them. They're going to be the judges on some of your cases. They're going to be the opposing counsel. This is the perfect opportunity to face it head-on,' " Tankleff said.
He said he expects about 40 guests at Sunday's commencement ceremony at the Tilles Center for the Performing Arts at LIU Post in Brookville. One of the most important decisions -- but easiest -- was whom he would pick for the hooding ceremony that accompanies a juris doctor degree.
"It had to be a lawyer, and what lawyer made this day possible? It's Stephen Braga. There was no hesitation," Tankleff said, referring to the Virginia attorney who began helping him with his appeal in 1995. "Without Steve, I wouldn't be here."