Jesse Friedman looked composed but slightly weary Tuesday morning as he sat in a rented mini-bus en route from Manhattan’s Upper East Side to a press conference at the Nassau County Supreme Court, where he was about to begin the latest chapter in the legal battle that has dominated his life for the past quarter-century. “I have no faith in the district attorney’s office, but we’re going to get a hearing, we’re going to get before a judge,” said Friedman, now 47, whose 1988 arrest and conviction on more than 200 charges of child sexual abuse were chronicled in director Andrew Jarecki’s Oscar-nominated 2003 documentary, “Capturing the Friedmans.” “I think our chances are pretty good,” he added.
Friedman’s optimism stems from a new motion filed Monday night by his attorney, Ron Kuby, asking the court to overturn Friedman’s conviction (he was released in 2001 after serving a 13-year prison sentence) on the basis of voluminous new evidence gathered by the defendant’s legal team working closely with Jarecki, who has continued to investigate the case over the past decade. That evidence includes written recantations by the prosecution’s only adult witness, Ross Goldstein, as well as five of the original child witnesses, all of whom now claim they were coerced by police and prosecutors into providing false testimony about crimes that never occurred. Also included in the filing is a sworn affidavit from noted attorney and victims’ rights advocate Barry Scheck, imploring the court to hold a new evidentiary hearing and to give Friedman’s lawyers access to original case files that have been sequestered by the district attorney’s office since 1988. (The full text of Friedman’s motion, including Scheck’s statement, can be viewed online at the support website freejesse.net.)
Scheck’s statement is seen by Friedman’s team as particularly damning to Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice, who in 2010 appointed Scheck to a four-person independent advisory panel tasked with aiding her office in its internal review of the original conviction. Rice was responding to the determination by a federal appellate court that there was “reasonable likelihood” of Friedman’s innocence. But as Scheck’s statement now reveals, the advisory panel was denied access to the prosecution files, police reports and other relevant documents, given only limited access to Friedman and Goldstein themselves, and prohibited from making any binding determinations of credibility. After dragging things out for three years, Rice’s office issued a 155-page report in 2013 that upheld Friedman’s conviction with a vengeance.
“Instances of wrongful conviction are real and exist in far greater numbers than any of us would like to admit,” Rice said in a statement at the time, adding that “the case against Jesse Friedman is not one of them.”
In a separate filing made last week, Friedman initiated a defamation lawsuit against Rice, citing multiple falsehoods in the 2013 report, including the allegation (since disproved) that he authored a pornographic comicbook while serving time.
“At the time, ‘Capturing the Friedmans’ was celebrated for its ambiguity, but if you look at the prosecution of this case, it was an unambiguous disaster,” said Jarecki, who joined Friedman on his Tuesday morning commute along with several members of his film crew; Friedman’s wife, Lisabeth Walsh; veteran legal publicist Lonnie Soury; and Emily Horowitz, a director of the National Center for Reason and Justice, the nonprofit advocacy group that has supported Friedman’s case since 2001. “If the police and the DA hadn’t bullied everyone, it never would have gotten to this place,” Jarecki added, noting that children as young as his own 9-year-old daughter (who sat at his side playing videogames on her cell phone) were subjected to multiple police interrogations lasting as long as seven hours until they finally gave the testimony investigators wanted to hear.
“They were willing to keep an innocent man in prison to advance their own careers, and they have no compunction about it,” said Soury, who likens the Friedman case to such other high-profile examples of wrongful conviction as the West Memphis Three and the Central Park Five.
“Jesse Friedman is one of the only remaining defendants from the daycare panic of the 1980s, with all of the earmarks of every single one of the other mass child sex abuse wrongful conviction cases,” said Horowitz. “The only difference is that all of the other cases are over.”
As chronicled in Jarecki’s film — much celebrated for its use of emotionally charged homemovie footage in which the Friedmans documented their family’s own implosion — 18-year-old Jesse was arrested together with his father, Arnold, amid allegations that they had molested more than a dozen students in the after-school computer class Arnold taught at the family’s Great Neck home. The arrests came shortly after a police raid had uncovered a stash of child pornography hidden in Arnold’s private office, prompting police to wonder about potential improprieties between Friedman and his students. Soon, the investigators had a roll call of alleged victims proffering outrageous stories of sex games and group rapes performed by Arnold and Jesse, all to the apparent ignorance of the parents who dutifully dropped off and picked up their kids from the Friedmans’ den of iniquity.
Although no prior such allegations had ever been leveled against the Friedmans, and despite an absence of any physical evidence, the wave of child-abuse hysteria that was sweeping the country in the wake of the McMartin preschool trial soon had Great Neck firmly in its grasp, leaving Arnold and Jesse with very few allies. Mistakenly believing that copping a plea would result in a milder punishment for Jesse, Arnold confessed and was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison, where he committed suicide in 1995. Jesse, too, pleaded guilty — under threat, he has since claimed, that presiding judge Abigail Boklan (herself a former sex crimes investigator) would sentence him to the equivalent of life in prison if he were to be convicted at trial. Instead, he went on to serve 13 years in a series of maximum-security prisons and today remains forced to live as a registered sex offender — the primary motivation, he says, for wanting to clear his name.
On the courthouse steps Tuesday morning, Friedman and Jarecki powwowed briefly with the fiery, ponytailed Kuby — a protege of the late William Kunstler — before meeting the small gathering of print and TV journalists. (Soury said he could have attracted a bigger crown in Manhattan, but felt it was important to bring the case back to where it began.)
“Sometimes we say these kinds of cases are radioactive,” said Jarecki, who spoke first. “If this was a murder case, it would have been thrown out many years ago, but nobody wants to make a mistake when it comes to something like this. Of course, I understand that. I’m a dad, my daughter’s here, I have two other kids. I care a lot about this issue of child abuse, I take it very seriously. That’s why I feel so strongly that when there are false claims about these kinds of crimes, they really undermine the entire system.”
Next at the mic was Kuby, who noted that “actual innocence” claims of the sort Friedman is making were not recognized by New York courts until a precedent-setting case earlier this year. Of the 14 original complainants in the Friedman case, he said, only three continue to maintain their claims of abuse, one of whom has been dismissed by Rice herself, while the other two offer testimonies that conflict both with each other and with those of other complainants. In a particular irony, Kuby pointed out that among the many ex-Friedman students who now claim that no inappropriate behavior ever took place is Jesse Aviram, an assistant district attorney in Rice’s own office.
“This is the product of 27 years’ worth of investigation and witnesses and evidence,” said a visibly moved Friedman as he took centerstage, his wife at his side. “I never committed a crime against any child ever. When I was 18 years old and got swept up by the Nassau County police and criminal justice system, I had absolutely no chance or hope of ever having my voice heard. This is a wonderful opportunity to be able to be here and to present this evidence in court where, for the first time in my life, I’m looking forward to a fair opportunity to have the evidence heard before a judge. I know that my exoneration is certain. It’s just a matter of having to fight against a DA who refuses to acknowledge the evidence right in front of her.”
The Nassau County district attorney’s office has until July 7 to respond to Friedman’s motion.