“He’s free. Marty”s free,” I screamed out to my wife as the plane landed in Mexico for our long awaited family vacation. My two teenage boys looked at me in shock and all of us hugged each other in the middle of the aisle, crying with joy and relief at the news jumping out of my blackberry: Marty Tankleff was being freed from prison in the wrongful conviction murder of his parents in their Long Island home in 1988.
It all came back to me when I received an email from Marty this week, “Just imagine how all our lives have changed, especially mine, three years ago today, with just a piece of paper.”
After 17 years in prison, Marty Tankleff, who had been sentenced to fifty years to life, was freed by four judges on the New York State Appellate Court.
Marty’s freedom came as a result of the work of dozens of lawyers, private detectives, retired judges, journalists, professors, public relations executives, the few politicians who really cared, friends and family. Most of all, it was by force of Marty’s personality and his story of injustice, which he told over the 17 years and 50, 000 letters he sent to people he hoped might listen to the tragedy of his life, the murder of his parents, his coerced, false confession and wrongful conviction.
In the years before Marty was released, especially during all the terribly disappointing legal setbacks he faced, I would often dream about what it would be like when it was finally over. How it would feel to end my obsession with Marty’s struggle. While Marty was upstate, I was in a prison of my own making, committing my life and the lives of my family to this quest to free an innocent man. It was all Marty, all the time. Within a few minutes of meeting someone, I would quickly assess whether they would be a welcome ear to my point of view on the case. And woe to the person, friend or journalist who showed little interest in my world. My wife even felt it necessary to warn me not to mention Marty’s plight in the eulogy I was preparing for her mother’s funeral. How could she have known I was actually trying to figure out a way to include it?
It is the third Christmas for Marty and his family, but there are thousands of others like him in prisons from Grady, Arkansas, where Damien Echols sits innocent on death row to Derrick Hamilton and Richard Diguglielmo in upstate New York, Richard Lapointe in Connecticut, Max Soffar awaiting execution in Texas, on and on and on. They need a ‘village” like Marty had to help raise awareness of their plight. They need law firms to take their cases pro bono and advocates to tell their story to the public, hoping to reach the ear of a journalist, civic leader, elected official, or even a judge or prosecutor who will decide to right a terrible wrong. And we need our legislators to establish innocence commissions and mandate the videotaping of police interrogations to prevent the high incidence of false confessions leading to wrongful prosecutions. In New York State alone, close to 50% of exonerated individuals were convicted based upon false statements made to police.
Marty’s lesson, and maybe mine as well, is never give up. Never stop sending letters from prison and, as obnoxious as it might appear, never stop talking to anyone who will listen about things as important as an innocent man.
Maybe, this holiday season some other men and women wrongfully imprisoned will get a piece of paper from a judge.