Marty Tankleff and his parents

Could you be convinced to confess to a crime you didn't commit? It may seem inconceivable, but research shows that in approximately 25 percent of DNA exoneration cases, innocent defendants made statements falsely incriminating themselves.

On September 7, 1988, 17-year-old Marty Tankleff called 911 to report that both his parents had been stabbed. Police arrived at his Long Island, New York, home within minutes. They found Marty's father unconscious on the floor of his office, bleeding from a stab wound to the neck. His mother was found dead in her bedroom, nearly decapitated.

"It was supposed to be my first day of school. ... I had just turned 17 on August 29, and it should have been a great year," Marty says. "Instead, it changed my life forever." 

Marty told police he thought his father's business partner might be responsible for the murders, and he agreed to go to the police station to answer their questions. "All they kept asking me was about my father's business partner ... [and] any problems my parents had with people," Marty says. "My background, my family—that's what I thought I was there for." As it turned out, local law enforcement officers had something else in mind.
Marty Tankleff says he was forced to confess to the crime.

When Marty arrived at the police station, he says he didn't know he was already the prime suspect in his parents' murders. Lead detective James McCready has said that Marty's reaction when police arrived on the scene raised immediate suspicion. "I think he would have been crying. I think he would have been shaken up and very upset," Detective McCready said in a previous interview. "He was sitting there with his legs crossed and his hands folded over his knees. It struck me as odd that he would be so calm and didn't appear to be upset."

Marty said he was calm because he was in shock, and he denied any involvement in the murders. After hours of interrogation, police stopped asking questions and tried a different tactic. They told Marty the hospital had pumped his father full of adrenaline and that he'd woken up and told police Marty stabbed him. After hearing this, Marty says he eventually confessed to the murder. "I was brought up [to believe] that cops don't lie," he says. "When the cops turned around and said, 'Your father said you did it,' I started to doubt myself because I knew my father would never lie. But I knew in my heart and my soul that I wasn't responsible for this."

Police say Marty told them he used a barbell and a kitchen knife to kill his mother and father.   Once the interrogation was over, Marty says he called his extended family and told them he only confessed because police forced him to.

Marty says the hostile environment of the interrogation room caused him to give a false confession. "I kept saying, 'It wasn't me,' and they kept saying, 'We don't care. Just tell us what we want to hear. We want to know it's you,'" he says. "You get to a point where you start doubting yourself ... you just want to escape that environment."
Marty Tankleff was charged with double murder.

Though Marty never actually signed a confession document, he was eventually charged with double murder. He took the stand in court and insisted he was innocent, saying he was tricked by detectives into confessing. "They were saying my father said I did this," he said on the stand. "My father never lied to me. They had me believing that I did it—and that's what they wanted to hear." Adding insult to injury, Marty was forced to attend his mother's funeral during his trial, bound by shackles.

Marty was ultimately found guilty and sentenced to 50 years to life in prison.
Karlene Kovacs

A lot of people fought to get Marty's conviction overturned, but one woman really got the process started. Karlene Kovacs was at an Easter dinner party when she says she overheard a piece of critical information. "Somebody had told me that [another guest] was involved. He was there and he pretty much committed the crime and Marty didn't," she says.

Karlene kept what she heard a secret for two years. "I was in shock, and I was in fear for my own life," she says. "I mean, who am I? If he could kill people, and I was pretty much nobody, then maybe he'd [hurt] me." Eventually, Karlene told a private investigator and gave an official statement to Marty's attorneys.
Jay Salpeter

Soon after Karlene came forward, Marty's family hired private investigator Jay Salpeter to dig into the new evidence. Jay says he was quickly able to uncover evidence he says was inconsistent with police claims. "Not one thing in Marty's alleged confession was consistent with the crime," Jay says. The confession also said Marty struck his parents with a barbell, but Jay says there was no blood on the barbell. 

Jay's investigation uncovered more witnesses who could speak to Marty's innocence. Eventually, the evidence in Marty's favor piled so high that in December 2006 the moment he dreamed of for 17 years became a reality —he was freed. Six months later, all charges against him were dropped. 

Despite Jay's findings, not everyone is convinced that Marty is innocent. Detective McCready issued a statement disagreeing with the exoneration decision. "He is guilty," the statement says. "He'll always be guilty. There are 12 jurors who convicted him. They were correct."
Marty is adjusting to life outside of prison.

Since his release from prison, Marty has been adjusting to a world quite different than the one he knew. "It's been a learning experience, between cell phones and BlackBerrys and iPods and laptops," he says. Marty has also gone back to school and is working toward his college degree at Hofstra University.
Marty says the best thing about freedom is the ability to make his own decisions. "For 20 years, I basically couldn't do anything. Everything was done for me," he says. "Now I can decide when I get up in the morning."

He's also learned not to take anything for granted. "Going to the library, going to the movies, going the beach. The first time I went to the beach was literally two weeks ago," he says. "Going out to put my feet in the sand was just great."
Marty credits his family for supporting him.

It took two decades of struggle to bring Marty to freedom, and he says he wouldn't have been able to get through it without his family. "Anybody who, God forbid, goes through a situation like I did should pray they have a family like mine," he says. "My mother's sister, my father's brother, my entire family has been by me every step of the way."
Marc Howard

Marc Howard and Marty have been friends since they were classmates at the Lovey Dovey Preschool. For 20 years, the Georgetown University political science professor has been following Marty's case.

Marc says he clearly remembers the day Marty's parents were murdered. "Word got out pretty early in the morning that something happened to Marty's parents. We were just completely shocked," Marc says. "And then everybody's concern was for Marty. It never occurred to us that Marty could be considered a suspect. It was always, 'Is Marty okay?'"

After police said Marty confessed to the murders, Marc says there was a lot of confusion. As editor of the school paper, The Purple Parrot, Marc wrote an article about the case. "It was a neutral story that was trying to cover all sides of the case, but really what I was pointing to was a lot of the evidence was indicating Marty's innocence. Or at least a much more complicated case than the prosecutors were trying to convey," Marc says.

Marc decided to pen an editorial called "Irresponsible Journalism." "[It] condemned the mainstream media ... for basically serving as kind of the mouthpiece of the prosecutors and really abandoning the presumption of innocence, which is supposed to be the backbone of our country," Marc says. "Looking back on this piece—which I wrote as a very naïve and idealistic 17-year-old—I'm very proud of it because I got this story right."

Because of Marty, Marc is now a first-year law student—in addition to being a parent and a full-time professor. "I've realized there's so many other Martys in prison and the system is broken and something needs to be done about it, so I'm going to contribute to that effort," he says.

Views expressed in that edition of The Purple Parrot do not reflect the opinions or policies of the Port Jefferson Union Free School District.

Saul Kassin

Saul Kassin, an expert on false confessions, says coerced confessions are a definite reality in the legal system. "In about 25 percent of the DNA exoneration cases that are out there, there were confessions in evidence as a contributing factor," he says. "And those DNA exoneration cases, those are the lucky few who had DNA in their cases and the DNA was saved and preserved to be tested."

Coerced confessions are more likely to take place when the suspect is young, Saul says, and Marty's naïve nature worked against him. "He'd never been in trouble before. He wasn't street smart. ... He was raised to trust the police," Saul says. "He was in a state of shock and when they brought him in. ... And when they brought him into the station, he wasn't even wearing shoes. He was half-dressed. He didn't have his glasses. He was in a state. That puts him in a state of vulnerability."

Police in Marty's case used his alleged lack of emotion against him, but Saul says there is no one way to react to trauma. "Psychologists who study reactions to trauma know that some people fly into a state of hysteria, but other people shut down, go numb and appear emotionless. That doesn't make them killers," Saul says. "The police are not psychologists in that regard, and to make an inference about somebody being a liar or a truth-teller or a killer or not killer on the basis of whether they're emotional, there's just no evidence for that."

Saul says police lied to Marty numerous times during his interrogation, which he says is legal in the United States. Such lies—including a nonexistent humidity test to "prove" that Marty took a shower after supposedly killing his parents—were used to break Marty down, Saul says. "You can imagine Marty at this point kind of like a boxer who's dazed and weak in the knees about to go down, they lower the boom and McCready goes out and stages a phone call [with Marty's father]," Saul says. "In doing that, he cites to Marty the person in his life he trusts the most. And so Marty breaks down and says, 'If my father says I did it, then I must have done it.'"
Marty lives in Port Jefferson.

Marty still lives in Long Island, and his childhood home brings back a lot of memories. "Right down the road from where I grew up there was a beach, and my mother and I used to go walking. Every memory's special with my parents. They embraced me. They loved me. I loved them," he says. "Without a doubt, I lived a charmed life."

Since his release from prison, Marty has become something of a local celebrity in the tight-knit community. Well-wishers often send him their congratulations and say they are happy to see him out of prison. "Everywhere I've gone, it's kind of that same reception now. It just proves the fact that once all the facts have gotten out there, the people who knew me, the people who followed the case know the truth," he says. 

Since his release, he's been staying with his cousin Ron and Ron's wife Carol. "We were very concerned that Marty would lose his soul, lose his innocence, lose his, as one of his lawyers calls it, boyish charm. And that didn't happen," Ron says. "He's come home with determination to go forward and to his life and prove himself."

"We always say that thank God we all stood together. We fought as a team, and we've won as a team," Marty says. "But we're far from over. And we won't stop."
Marty Tankleff

After all he's been through, does Marty ever feel angry or bitter? "Every day there's a little bit of bitterness and anger, but I don't focus on it. If I spent too much energy focusing on my bitterness, my anger toward the hell that I've been through, I won't be successful."
Instead of focusing on the negative, Marty instead concentrates on a bright future for himself. "I say basically my world is my oyster," he says.
In addition to enjoying freedoms like driving, Marty says he regularly goes to the gym, sees friends and spends time at the beach. He's also working to make a difference in the world. While in prison, Marty earned his associate's degree and enrolled full time in college immediately after his release. As someone who's been through the prison system and knows what needs to be changed, Marty is now determined to become a lawyer to help make things right. "There's so many faults with it. There shouldn't be any more Marty Tankleffs," he says. "Society suffers when an innocent person goes away, and we can change the system."

Ten years after Marty Tankleff's arrest, a California teen faces a similar situation.

See how others have transformed their darkest moments into their wildest dreams.
FROM: Exclusive: Wrongfully Accused of Murdering His Parents
Published on June 09, 2009


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