The case of Marty Tankleff is one now used around the world to highlight the dangers of false confessions, both to the innocent lives they can destroy and to law enforcement whose interview methods and tactics can end up convicting the wrong man. Marty Tankleff is a man who has spent half his life trying to clear his name after being wrongfully convicted of the double murder of his parents in New York in 1988 after he falsely confessed to the crime as a teenager. A battle he has now won but the case remains wide open.
In between the horror of a false confession coaxed out of a traumatized 17-year-old, a wrongful conviction for double murder and 17 years in prison an innocent man, justice for Tankleff’s parents, Seymour and Arlene Tankleff, has never been received. While new suspects were identified during Martin Tankleff’s appeal process, no charges against anyone else for this crime have ever been filed.
On the morning of 7 September 1988, at his home in Belle Terre, New York, Marty Tankleff woke up and left his bedroom to go downstairs. What he walked into was a bloodbath. He found his mother dead on his parents’ bedroom floor and his father barely alive on the floor of his study. Both his parents had been violently beaten and stabbed and Marty had slept through it all.
Horrified and scared, he frantically called 911 begging for help. His father was taken to hospital in a critical condition and Marty to the police headquarters of the Suffolk County Police Department to begin answering questions. Marty Tankleff told police straight away he believed his father’s business partner, who owed his father a substantial amount of money, was responsible for the attacks on his parents. He had been in the Tankleff’s house the night before and had recently threatened his parents with violence. The police, however, paid little attention to his comments, already concluding in their minds that this 17-year-old boy had murdered his parents and what they wanted was a confession.
At the police station across the table from two police detectives, Marty endured an interrogation that lasted for hour upon hour. Isolated from his family members and exhausted he was told by the lead detective, James McCready, that his father had woken up in the hospital and had told officers Marty was who had attacked them.
He was confused and terrified. Why would his father say this, he kept thinking, if it wasn’t true? He began to doubt himself. He asked the detective, “Could I have blacked out and done it?” to which a second detective responded, “Marty I think that’s what happened to you.” Detectives also told Marty they had found hair belonging to him on his mother’s body and evidence in the shower that he had washed to clean himself of blood after the attacks.
He had no memory of any such attack nor did he have any reason why he would hurt his parents, but if his father said it was him, maybe he had blacked out or had some sort of episode that he now couldn’t remember. As a result, he verbally confessed to the attacks on his parents giving the detectives the details about timings and weapons that they wanted to hear. Details that were entirely untrue as he had no actual knowledge of the crime and words he almost immediately recanted.
When the detective scribbled down a ‘confession’ Marty protested. He refused to sign the paperwork that was put in front of him, telling them he did not commit this crime yet the police announced they had their confession and could go ahead and charge him with murder. The information Detective James McCready had told Marty about his father was false. Seymour Tankleff still lay unconscious in hospital having never regained consciousness and would go on to die from his injuries weeks later. Furthermore, the hair that was found on Arlene Tankleff which had not been tested at the time Marty was told it was his, came back from the lab as not belonging to Marty Tankleff nor was any evidence found in the shower of the home concerning blood, fibers or hairs.
In fact, there was no forensic evidence at all to link him with the murders. Almost two years later Marty Tankleff found himself in a courtroom where the only evidence against him was a jumbled confession full of inaccuracies that he had immediately taken back. The details Marty Tankleff had provided about the crime and how he supposedly carried it out after his ‘confession’ were entirely inconsistent with the facts at the crime scene and the later confirmed forensic evidence. The jury, however, was persuaded, believing it was not possible for anyone to confess to a double murder, especially of their own parents, that they did not commit. On 28 June 1990, Marty Tankleff was convicted of two counts of murder in the second degree. Four months later he was sentenced to 50 years to life in prison.
The Innocence Project highlights that more than 1 in 4 people in known wrongful conviction cases made a false confession of some kind. Clinical Professor of Law Steven Drizin of Northwestern University has reported that around 80% of known false confessions involve cases of murder and, that in a study of 340 exonerations since 1989, 42% of the juvenile wrongful convictions involved false confessions compared to just 13% of the adult wrongful convictions.
When police are able to say they have a confession from a suspect, this is viewed as conclusive and solid evidence at trial. Few juries are willing to overlook a defendant who has confessed to the crime in question.
Law Professor Richard Leo, an expert in false confessions, explained in an interview article on ‘Why Innocent People Confess To Crimes‘ highlighted on the Wrongful Convictions Blog, that “A pattern of errors resulting from misguided methods and a presumption that police have arrested the guilty party,” are the most common reasons behind false confessions. He explains that an assumption by the police in the very early stages of an investigation that a person is involved and guilty of the crime, can pave the way for interrogations and tactics all biased towards obtaining a confession from this ‘guilty’ party rather than asking the open-ended questions needed and allowing a suspect to answer those questions.
“You don’t subject someone to an interrogation unless you’re reasonably sure that person is guilty,” he said. Adding, “One way to put it is: in an interview they ask you questions; in an interrogation they tell you the answers.”
“It’s like having an 18- wheeler driving on your chest and you believe that the only way to get that weight off your chest is to tell the police whatever they want to hear … even admitting to a murder.” – Marty Tankleff
When an individual has been interrogated for hours on end, through exhaustion and desperation for the interrogation to stop, they can decide to tell the investigators what they clearly want to hear, often using the information about the crime they have already been told, just to make it all stop. They often believe that as they know they are innocent, they cannot and would not be charged for something that they didn’t do and the police will realise they are not guilty. The use of false information by police in an interrogation is described by the Innocence Project as “deception or trickery in the interrogation room” and as entirely legal but, it can have a heavy influence in encouraging false confessions.
Imprisoned for the murder of his parents in 1990, in appeal after appeal defence lawyers for Marty Tankleff filed motions challenging his conviction. They argued that he was subjected to a “custodial interrogation” which was then also expanded to the filing of new evidence establishing “actual innocence”, after private investigators hired by his defence team found new information and witnesses naming two men believed to have been the real killers, hired as hitmen by Seymour Tankleff’s business partner.
The involvement of this business partner in the murders has never been conclusively established. Marty Tankleff’s website highlights that “A week after the attacks, as Marty’s father lay unconscious in the hospital, the business partner would fake his own death, disguise himself and flee to California under an alias”. Despite this, he has never been appropriately considered or approached as a suspect by police in this case.
In 2003 the Suffolk County District Attorney refused a new trial or a new hearing on the basis he did not find the witness statements credible and he did not believe this was actually ‘new’ evidence or that it proved the innocence of Marty Tankleff. In 2007, his double murder conviction was finally overturned after an appellate court ruled this new evidence should have been properly considered and acted on when it was presented four years earlier.
Now, 10 years on, Marty Tankleff has completed a law degree and this year passed the New York State bar exam qualifying him to practice as a lawyer. His experience of the criminal justice system and long fight to prove his innocence has left him wanting to help others in similar situations. “I would love to emulate the lawyers in the wrongful conviction movement,” he told Newsday. “Who better to understand the system than someone who’s been through the system?”