Clad in a black cap and gown, Martin Tankleff looked like any other graduate on the Hofstra University football field, where a blustery wind and light rain quickened the pace of Sunday's commencement.
Yet for Tankleff, 38 - who spent 17 years in prison on a conviction that was overturned in 2007 - the ceremony marked another milestone in a journey to reclaim his life.
"I had not been in a formal college setting ever in my life," he said. "I wanted to complete it as quickly as possible because I'm so far ahead in life that for me to catch up, I have to do things quicker than others."
Tankleff was 17 when, in 1988, his parents, Arlene and Seymour Tankleff, were killed in their Belle Terre home.
Within hours of the deaths, investigators focused on Martin as their only suspect. After initially denying killing his parents, Tankleff confessed when a Suffolk homicide detective told him Seymour had come out of a coma and fingered his son as the attacker - something that had not happened. Martin Tankleff never signed the confession and almost immediately recanted it.
Tankleff was found guilty in 1990 and sentenced to 50 years to life in prison. In 2007, an appellate court overturned the conviction on the grounds that a lower court had not weighed new evidence sufficiently.
Since his release from prison, Tankleff has helped launch the Fortress Innocence Group, a project that aims to match prisoners with lawyers who will appeal their convictions pro bono.
And Sunday, when he walked across the stage and shook hands with university president Stuart Rabinowitz, Tankleff obtained a bachelor's degree in sociology.
Despite his high-profile case, Tankleff said his classmates didn't pry into his past. "Many of them never even asked me . . . about my life experience," he said. "They just treated me like a normal student."
And while he plans to go to law school in 2010, for now his immediate objective is to find a job in the legal field - "anything that pays," he said.
Asked whether he would search for work further afield, Tankleff said he wants to stay on Long Island, where he has supportive family and friends.
As of last year, he also has a girlfriend. And someday, he looks forward to having a family of his own - "absolutely," he said.
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