GARDEN CITY, N.Y. (AP) -- A man who spent 17 years in prison before a court said he might be innocent in the 1988 murder of his parents was told Monday that he will not have to face a second trial.
Martin Tankleff, 36, was convicted in 1990, but defense attorneys have long contended that his disputed confession given to detectives on the day of the killings was coerced, and argued that a family business associate was the real culprit.
Last December, an appellate court ruled that key evidence in the case had been overlooked and said Tankleff was entitled to a new trial. When Suffolk County prosecutors opted against a second trial, citing the passage of time and changes in the law, the New York attorney general's office was called in to review the case.
That six-month review ended Monday, when state prosecutors said they too would not prosecute Tankleff a second time.
Benjamin Rosenberg, who was appointed by Attorney General Andrew Cuomo to conduct the review, said that while there was "some evidence" that Tankleff committed the crimes, "after 20 years the evidence is insufficient to conclude or would prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he did so."
Tankleff had no immediate reaction to the decision.
His exoneration ends an extraordinary legal odyssey that included a coerced confession; a drawn-out appeal bankrolled by a team of high-powered lawyers who took the case pro bono; and conspiracy theories about the identity of the real killers.
Seymour Tankleff and his wife, Arlene, were found slain in their waterfront home in Belle Terre, a well-to-do enclave overlooking Long Island Sound, on Sept. 7, 1988, the morning Martin was to begin his senior year in high school. Arlene Tankleff was found bludgeoned in her bedroom; Seymour was stabbed in his study and died about a month later.
Detectives questioned the teenager at the home after he called 911 to report the attack. Later, they took him to police headquarters where they used an interrogation tactic in which they falsely told him that his father had awakened from a coma and named him as the killer. At that point, Tankleff wondered aloud if he might have "blacked out" and committed the crimes, adding: "It's starting to come to me." The motive, he told police, was anger over a variety of slights, including being made to drive a "crummy old Lincoln."
He immediately recanted the confession, refusing to sign what the officers had written.
From the day of his arrest through his trial -- one of the nation's first televised on Court TV -- Tankleff pointed to a business partner of his father who ran a string of Long Island bagel shops. Tankleff claimed the businessman, Jerry Steuerman, owed his father thousands and enlisted some local street thugs to commit the murders to escape his debt.
Steuerman has always insisted he was not involved. Prosecutors and police never gave serious consideration to Steuerman as a suspect, despite his own bizarre behavior: Just days after the Tankleff killings he faked his own suicide and fled to California in a disguise.
Tankleff's defense team filed numerous appeals, to no avail. Finally, in 2003, his attorneys were granted a new hearing in Suffolk County, claiming they had a witness who would say he drove two men to and from the Tankleff house on the night of the slayings, and that one of them was later seen burning his clothes.
But that witness never testified, citing his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Other witnesses testified that they heard one of the men allegedly in the car that night -- Joey "Guns" Creedon -- confess he was involved.
Creedon, a career criminal who testified at the hearing that he had committed rape and assaults, has denied any involvement in the killings. Tankleff claimed he slept through the carnage.
When a Suffolk County judge rejected Tankleff's claim in 2006, he took his case to the Appellate Division of the state Supreme Court. The judges ruled in December it was "probable" that a new jury would render a different verdict.