Martin Tankleff with a smile on his face, leaves Riverhead...

Martin Tankleff with a smile on his face, leaves Riverhead Criminal Court after charges were dropped against him. (June 30, 2008) Credit: James Carbone

Martin Tankleff, the former Belle Terre man who served 17 years in prison after he was convicted of killing his parents, has settled his false-imprisonment lawsuit with New York State for $3.375 million.

The settlement came as the suit was about to be tried this week in the state Court of Claims. Another suit filed by Tankleff, against Suffolk County, is pending in U.S. District Court.

In reaching the settlement, Tankleff's attorney Bruce Barket of Garden City said, "The attorney general recognized the case on Marty's behalf was a powerful case of actual innocence."

The state attorney general's office confirmed the settlement but otherwise declined to comment.

"I'd like to thank my family and friends, who have stood by me for the past 25 years," Tankleff, now 42, said in a statement. "I am looking forward to my federal trial, where I hope to expose the misconduct that caused my wrongful conviction so that it does not happen to anyone else."

Another of Tankleff's attorneys praised the state for avoiding a trial.

"No one can give Martin Tankleff back the nearly two decades he has spent in prison for a crime he did not commit," said Barry J. Pollack of Washington, D.C. "Mr. Tankleff's supporters have known all along that he had absolutely nothing to do with the murder of his parents."

Tankleff, then 17, was charged with fatally bludgeoning and stabbing his parents, Arlene and Seymour Tankleff, in 1988.

He was convicted in 1990, largely on the basis of a confession that he never signed and immediately repudiated, which police got by falsely telling him his dying father regained consciousness and said he did it.

He was sentenced to 50 years to life in prison, but in 2007 an appellate court overturned his conviction, ruling that a lower court did not properly consider new evidence brought forth by Tankleff's legal team during an extensive hearing.

That evidence suggested that Seymour Tankleff's business partner, Jerry Steuerman, hired a pair of hit men to kill the Tankleffs.

Martin Tankleff walked free in December 2007, and Steuerman has always denied involvement in the slayings, as have the men who Tankleff said he hired. In depositions, Steuerman refused to answer any questions, citing his constitutional right not to incriminate himself.

His attorney, Susan Carman of Garden City, declined to comment on the settlement.

Steuerman owed about $500,000 to Seymour Tankleff and was the last person to see him alive, at a poker game at the Tankleff home. After the murders, Steuerman faked his death and fled to California. Suffolk police never considered him a suspect.

Tankleff's suit said police should have done so, and that their failure to thoroughly investigate Steuerman and people associated with him led to his false conviction. It also led to his parents' killers going unpunished, Barket said.

"I think he would like to have the people who murdered his parents prosecuted and held accountable for what they did to them, and for what they did to his life," Barket said of Tankleff.

After Tankleff was freed, District Attorney Thomas Spota cited the passage of time and legal difficulties in declining to retry Tankleff, and he said he didn't find other theories about who killed the Tankleffs to be credible.

Spota referred the case to then-Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo, who declined to prosecute anyone else.

Spota's office declined to comment Tuesday.

Barket said the legal time limit to sue for wrongful death has passed.

Since leaving prison, Tankleff has gotten married and moved to Suffolk's South Shore, worked as a paralegal for Barket, got a college degree and attended law school at night. He expects to graduate this year.

Barket said Tankleff's accomplishments in six years of freedom have been "stunning."

Barket said he and his client are now focused on the federal suit, which will focus on claims that Suffolk police botched the death investigation and falsely arrested Tankleff.

County spokeswoman Vanessa Baird-Streeter declined to comment on the settlement or the federal suit against the county.

Barket said recently developed forensic evidence from the crime scene makes even clearer that two people committed the crime.

Martin Tankleff case timeline

1988: Hours after the stabbing and bludgeoning deaths of Seymour and Arlene Tankleff, detectives zeroed in on Martin Tankleff -- 17 at the time -- as their only suspect. Tankleff initially denied killing his parents, but later confessed after Suffolk homicide Det. K. James McCready told him that Seymour had awakened from his coma and accused his son of the attacks. Martin Tankleff almost immediately recanted his confession, which he never signed.

1990: A Suffolk County jury convicts Tankleff of murder. A judge sentences him to 50 years in prison.

2007: An appellate court overturns Tankleff's conviction, ruling that a lower court did not properly consider new evidence brought forth by Tankleff's legal team.

2008: Then-Attorney General Andrew Cuomo drops the charges against Tankleff.

2009: Tankleff files an 11-count lawsuit in federal court and another one in state court. The suit in federal court accuses the county, as well as specific investigators, of a long pattern of violating the civil rights of criminal defendants, including by coercing false confessions like the one Tankleff said led to him being convicted of his parents' murders. The other suit accuses the state of wrongful imprisonment.

2014: Tankleff settles the lawsuit against the state for $3.375 million.

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