Martin H. Tankleff, center, with Jay Salpeter, left, an investigator who helped free him, and Stephen L. Braga, one of his lawyers.
He got up early and watched the sun rise, enjoyed the taste of fresh coffee brewed outside the confines of prison walls and went on a ski trip.
In the first few days after winning his freedom, Martin H. Tankleff — who was sent to prison 17 years ago for two murders he insists he never committed — relished the things that were little more than routine to him half a lifetime ago.
The past few days, Mr. Tankleff said, were mostly days of joy — except for the moments on New Year’s Day when he stood in a cemetery and mourned at the graves of his parents, Seymour and Arlene Tankleff. The couple were found beaten and stabbed to death in their home in Belle Terre, on the North Shore of Long Island, on Sept. 17, 1988.
“It was beyond emotional,” he said of his trip to their graves. “But I had to go.”
On Wednesday afternoon, the Suffolk County district attorney unexpectedly announced that he would not pursue new murder charges against Mr. Tankleff, 36, whose conviction was overturned last month by an appeals court that ordered a new trial, based on new evidence and witnesses pointing to other suspects.
Thursday morning, for the first time in nearly 20 years, Mr. Tankleff found himself contemplating a future in which he would no longer have to assert his innocence.
Standing at a lectern in the New York office of Baker Botts, one of the law firms working on his case, wearing a pale blue shirt with a black and white button that read, “Free Marty,” Mr. Tankleff thanked his supporters for helping sustain his faith that he would someday be set free.
Accompanied by friends, family and lawyers — some of whom have represented him free for over a decade — he said that he wanted to finish college. (He took some college courses while he was in prison.)
After that, he said, he would like to study law. And ultimately, Mr. Tankleff said, he would like to be able to repay in kind the legal assistance he had received and help others wrongfully convicted.
“I have a lot to do,” he said, adding: “I never lived in a prison. I resided there.”
Mr. Tankleff’s lawyers were quick to give their client credit for forging his own path toward freedom, describing him as a tenacious correspondent who wrote thousands of letters to lawyers, judges and investigators and appealed widely for help from friends and acquaintances.
Stephen L. Braga, a lawyer who has represented Mr. Tankleff for more than 12 years, described meeting him for the first time in the fall of 1995 at the Clinton Correctional Facility, in Dannemora, N.Y., which he described as “a dark, dreary, desperate place.”
Mr. Braga, who then coordinated cases that the law firm, Miller, Cassidy, Larroca and Lewin, handled without charge, was told about Mr. Tankleff by another lawyer at the firm, Barry Pollack. Mr. Tankleff came to the attention of Mr. Pollack through an intern at the firm, Laura Taichman, who went to high school with Mr. Tankleff.
For more than 10 years, lawyers from several firms handled aspects of Mr. Tankleff’s case without charge.
“We instantly liked him,” said Mr. Braga. “We’ve been representing Marty through highs and lows, close calls, disappointments, federal courts, state courts.”
Another lawyer, Bruce A. Barket, said that he was thankful for Mr. Tankleff’s release, but was bothered that it had taken so long. “Our justice system is deeply flawed to allow somebody like Marty Tankleff to spend this much time in prison for a crime that others committed,” he said.
Mr. Tankleff was asked whether he planned to sue the authorities in Suffolk County for wrongful arrest. He referred the question to the lawyers standing next to him, who said that no decision had yet been made. Mr. Tankleff also said that he had not made any decision about whether to write a book.
In the last week, he said, he has been struck by how some things have remained the same even after 17 years — like taxis speeding through the streets of Manhattan — while technology and other aspects of life have changed so immensely.
But Mr. Tankleff, too, has changed. He still writes letters, but in the last week, instead of scribbling them by hand, he has learned to use e-mail. More than anything else, Mr. Tankleff said, he is grateful that his lawyers, relatives and supporters never stopped paying attention to his letters.
“It’s just been a long, long fight,” he said. “I never gave up. They never gave up.”