'I Didn't Do It'

updated 08/07/2006 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/07/2006 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Fresh blood still splattered the walls of his parents' Long Island home when Marty Tankleff, 17, told a detective he had killed his mother and bludgeoned his father into a coma. Two years later, in 1990, a jury found him guilty of the double murder (his father had died) and sentenced him to 50 years to life. Tankleff insisted his confession was coerced and spent the next 16 years fighting desperately to prove his innocence. Finally, last March, a judge who had listened to 21 witnesses say Tankleff didn't kill his parents was set to rule on whether or not he should get a new trial. Most observers were sure he would say yes. The judge said no.

Yet Tankleff's dream of getting out of jail, sustained in a place where the only thing scarcer than cigarettes is hope, lives on—especially now that top legal experts like Barry Scheck have joined in the fight. On May 30 a New York appellate court upheld Tankleff's right to appeal the judge's ruling, giving him another and perhaps final chance to prove he didn't murder his parents. "There is no doubt in my mind that I am going to get out," says the steely, super-focused Tankleff. "There is no way it can't happen."

Mailing out thousands of letters about his case netted Tankleff an impressive staff: He has lawyers from five prominent firms working pro bono, as well as backers in several groups devoted to freeing wrongly jailed inmates. "The police tactics in this case are exactly what lead to false confessions and causes innocent people to be convicted," Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, said of Tankleff's case. Adds Richard Ofshe, a professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkley and an authority on false confessions who testified at the hearing to grant Tankleff a new trial: "It is frighteningly clear the defendant in this case is innocent. The confession doesn't match the evidence."

Suffolk County officials who are determined to keep Tankleff behind bars disagree. Tankleff's confession "does match the physical evidence," insists Suffolk County prosecutor Leonard Lato. "You do have false confessions, but it doesn't mean all confessions are bad."

The only son of Seymour Tankleff, who co-owned three bagel shops, and his wife, Arlene, Marty was raised in upper-middle-class Belle Terre on New York's Long Island. On Sept. 7, 1988, he says he awoke to find his parents beaten; his mother also had her throat slit. According to testimony, police quickly suspected Marty because he seemed unemotional. During an interrogation that day, Det. James McCready told Marty his father came out of his coma and accused his son of the crime. It wasn't true—Seymour Tankleff never awoke from his coma—and Marty initially denied it. But not much later he asked McCready, "Could I have blacked out and done this?" He then provided details of how he attacked his parents.

Yet there were problems with his confession, which he refused to sign. There was no blood on the knife he said he used or in any drain; nor did he have a motive, beyond the D.A.'s speculation he was after his parents' money. Plus there was another suspect: his father's business partner Jerry Steuerman, who owed Seymour hundreds of thousands of dollars. Shortly after the murders Steuerman staged his suicide, moved to California and changed his identity. (He told the D.A. the stress of being accused made him want to start over.) Even so, a jury convicted Tankleff. "That," he says, "was the most shocking day."

In 2001 Tankleff hired an investigator who found enough new witnesses to persuade the D.A. to hold hearings on granting a new trial. In the most recent hearings, witnesses accused Steuerman of hiring a man named Joseph Creedon to kill the Tankleffs. Even Creedon's son Joseph Guarascio said his father told him he did it. "At first I didn't want to [help Marty]," says Guarascio. "But I figured if I never said what I found out, then everybody would be living a lie." Yet many of the witnesses had criminal records, and in ruling out a new trial, the judge dismissed their testimony as "not worthy of belief."

Tankleff is optimistic about his chances in his appeal, but then, staying upbeat, say those who know him, is how he copes with being in prison. "I've had so many letdowns over the years," he says. "What keeps me going is knowing I am not alone in my fight."

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