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Marty Tankleff, wrongfully imprisoned, wins $3.4M settlement

Marty Tankleff has almost always told the same story about what happened when he woke up in his Long Island, N.Y. home on Sept. 6, 1988, when he was just 17 years old. Almost always. 

WATCH: "48 Hours: Marty Tankleff's Fight for the Truth"

Tankleff said he found his mother, Arlene, dead in her bedroom and his father, Seymour,  in his office, barely clinging to life. Only once did Marty Tankleff deviate from that tale: when he was subjected to an intense police interrogation a few hours after waking that day. In that version, Marty said he must have blacked out but now remembered stabbing and bludgeoning his parents.

Tankleff became the prime suspect as soon as Detective James McCready arrived at the crime scene. The boy didn’t look distraught enough to McCready. Tankleff was taken to the station where he was questioned by detectives without an attorney or any adult advocate present.

As McCready told "48 Hours" correspondent Erin Moriarty in a 2004 interview, he trusted his instincts. He did what he could to get that confession. He told Tankleff there was evidence pointing to him and that Seymour had awakened and named Marty as his assailant. “You lied to him. That’s all right to do?,” Moriarty asked McCready. “The United States Supreme Court says it is,” McCready replied.

In fact, Seymour had died before regaining consciousness. But McCready’s lies helped Tankleff question his own memory and the detective got his confession – an oral one at least. Tankleff never signed the written statement McCready prepared. And he recanted almost immediately.

Problems with the case quickly surfaced. When the physical evidence was processed, it did NOT point to Tankleff.

There was no blood on the alleged murder weapons that detectives had seen when they walked through the house.  One of those weapons was a knife, found next to a watermelon. It turned out to have watermelon on it, not blood.

Detectives surmised that Tankleff was very adept at cleaning up. And they noted ominous circumstantial evidence to bolster their case: the sponge in the shower had a split in it!  Tankleff shuffled his feet in the grass! Perhaps most incriminating of all:  Tankleff was a spoiled kid.  He was displeased with the car his parents gave him. Tankleff was convicted and sentenced to 50 years. Jurors tend to believe confessions and tend to dislike spoiled kids.

In 2004, when Tankleff finally got an evidentiary hearing, a parade of witnesses found by private investigator Jay Salpeter took the stand. They testified about a man named Jerry Steuerman, who had owed Seymour a lot of money.

Steuerman was at a card game Seymour hosted the night before the attacks. Steuerman was linked to a career criminal who, over the years, was heard bragging that he was responsible for the Tankleff murders. A lot of colorful characters testified at that hearing – and they were all found by time-honored investigative techniques. But when the police originally had the case – the investigation into anything that contradicted their theory seemed to end that very first day when Tankleff confessed.

Even when the physical evidence didn’t fit; even when Jerry Steuerman faked his own death and left town. “Didn’t you say to Jerry, ‘you’re messing up my case here?’” Moriarty asked McCready. “Something like that. I remember saying something to that effect, yes,” the former detective admitted. He said he didn’t think Steuerman was capable of playing a role in a crime like this.

Confessions are powerful evidence. It’s hard to believe that anyone would admit to a crime he didn’t commit. Yet, according to the Innocence Project, 25 percent of people exonerated with cold, hard evidence like DNA had falsely confessed. More and more experts, defense attorneys, and prosecutors are taking note. 

Even staunch defenders of aggressive interrogation techniques say a good confession should be corroborated. Ideally, the suspect should tell interrogators something not yet known – something that turns out to be true.

Tankleff was eventually freed on Dec. 27, 2007, after an appellate court took a fresh look at his case. He expects to graduate law school this year. But he lost nearly two decades of his life. Would anyone be held accountable for that? Just yesterday, a lawsuit he filed against the State of New York was settled for $3,375,000. This settlement represents the State’s share of his damages from over 17 years of wrongful imprisonment.  

It is not the end of Tankleff’s legal battles. There are pending cases against Suffolk County and former detective James McCready, among others. One of his attorneys, Barry Scheck, said, "We have developed powerful new forensic evidence demonstrating Marty's innocence and showing that his parents were murdered by assailants who acted with efficiency and brutality."

A forensic expert who often sides with police once told me that he fears civil suits like these will have a chilling effect on re-opening questionable cases. It will make police and prosecutors even more reluctant to admit mistakes. But maybe cases like this one can be beneficial by making investigators more careful in the first place - less hasty, and more likely to search for solid, hard evidence - even when that evidence conflicts with their instincts.

False confessions benefit no one. Innocent people go to prison. As this case shows, there may ultimately be a hefty financial price to pay. Last – but not least – it means people get away with murder. Whoever did kill Seymour and Arlene Tankleff got away with it -- so far.

Gail Zimmerman is a producer for "48 Hours."

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