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Martin Tankleff, exonerated in his parents' murder, to be sworn in as lawyer

Martin Tankleff in August, 2017 in Garden City.

Martin Tankleff in August, 2017 in Garden City. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Martin Tankleff, who served over 17 years in prison before his conviction for killing his parents was thrown out, is scheduled to be admitted to the New York State bar Wednesday --  becoming one of a handful of exonerees practicing law in the state. 

"The first time my name will be read on the record somewhere, it will be huge," Tankleff, 48, said in an interview Tuesday ahead of the swearing-in ceremony in Brooklyn on Wednesday. "I'll be able to  represent people -- literally say, 'Martin Tankleff for the defense' or 'Martin Tankleff for the plaintiff' -- being able to advocate for people in a much different way." 

Following his release from prison 13 years ago, Tankleff graduated from Touro Law Center in Central Islip in 2014 and in recent years has taught at both Touro and Georgetown University and worked as a paralegal at a Manhattan law firm.

After he passed the bar exam in 2017, he faced a long approval process for admittance to the state bar, said attorney Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, who along with former Judge Barry Kamins, represented Tankleff pro bono during the bar admissions process.

"He's already done extraordinary things," said Scheck, referencing Tankleff's work with Georgetown students to exonerate a wrongly accused defendant from Buffalo. "He has continued to be a very active spokesperson, a mainstay in the innocence movement. A lot of exonerees have been active in trying to reform the system and Marty has always been outstanding in that way." 

Tankleff was sentenced to 50 years to life in prison in 1990 for bludgeoning and stabbing his parents, Arlene and Seymour Tankleff, to death in their Belle Terre home in 1988. He was 17 at the time of his parents' deaths. 

Tankleff's conviction was based largely on a confession that Tankleff repudiated almost immediately and refused to sign.

In 2007, an appellate court overturned his conviction, ruling that Suffolk County Court Judge Stephen Braslow did not properly consider new evidence introduced by Tankleff’s legal team, and he was released.

That evidence suggested that Seymour Tankleff’s business partner, Jerry Steuerman, hired a pair of hit men to kill the Tankleffs. Steuerman has always denied any involvement in the murders. Steuerman owed Seymour Tankleff $500,000 and fled to California after the murders under an assumed name after faking his death.

In 2018, Suffolk County awarded Tankleff $10 million in a settlement following a 2009 federal court lawsuit against the county, which claimed detectives who investigated the murders fabricated a false confession and suppressed exculpatory evidence. Tankleff also received a $3.375 million settlement from New York State under the Unjust Imprisonment and Conviction Act.

Tankleff said the bar admittance process was "torturous," but he got through it with his attorneys' help and the love and support of his wife Laurie and their daughter Kourtney. 

"For me, I think the reality won't actually hit until I sign the book," said Tankleff, referring to the custom of newly minted attorneys signing the attorney roll book. "I've been through so much in my life, the signing of the book really is that final culmination that you're admitted to the bar."

In a text message, his former attorney Bruce Barket, of Mineola, said: "Mr. Tankleff's work and accomplishments are remarkable. From wrongly convicted to prison to exonerated to law school and now admission and helping others. It's an honor to know him."

Tankleff said once he's an official lawyer, he plans to stay at Metcalf & Metcalf, P.C, the Manhattan law firm where he's worked since 2018. 

The parts of the law he's most interested in practicing? Criminal and civil rights law, he said, and of course, he wants to assist defendants with wrongful convictions. 

"Part of me wants to help educate the legal system to the pitfalls, to prevent wrongful convictions -- what things to be wary of and what to look for." 

A prior version of this story mischaracterized the role of the state's Board of Law Examiners, which administers the bar exam. The Appellate Division conducts the character and fitness review of bar applicants and admits them to the practice of law.

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