“Capturing” My Hometown

By Noah Forrest

Jesse Friedman is a convicted child molester.  And he wants your sympathy.

I hadn’t heard about Arnold Friedman’s pedophilic sexual molestation scandal that rocked Great Neck, Long Island in the mid-80s until I learned of Andrew Jarecki’s film, “Capturing the Friedmans.”  That might not be that surprising, considering most people likely knew about the scandal from the film, if at all.  But there was one crucial difference between most people and me…

I’m from Great Neck.   My house was a few minutes walk from the Friedmans.

A little background: Arnold Friedman was an award-winning high school science teacher who also taught a computer class for elementary schoolers in the basement of his home.  After a sting operation by the Nassau County Police Department, Arnold was caught with magazines depicting child pornography.  The police investigated, and then interrogated the computer students.  Several of the students reported sexual abuse at the classes, with both Arnold and his youngest son, 17-year-old Jesse, as perpetrators.

Arnold pled guilty and committed suicide in prison in 1995.  At a time when the McMartin trial was splashed on the front pages of every newspaper, Jesse was told by Judge Abbey Boklan that she would pursue the maximum sentence allowable under law – consecutive, rather than concurrent sentences for each count – and Jesse accepted a plea deal that put him in prison for 13 years.

A little about Great Neck: my hometown is a perfectly fine suburban community that’s overwhelmingly homogeneous. Practically everybody in my town is Jewish; the majority are fairly wealthy.  This has made Great Neck a popular target for a media only too happy to report on things like, say, a kid who helped others cheat on their SATs.  Or, perhaps, a television show devoted to stereotypes about rich Jews.

Typical of Great Neck at the time of the Friedman scandal was that nobody talked about it.  It was a place where things got swept under the rug or ignored., so that the town could maintain its picture postcard image of perfection.  But I suppose that’s true of most wealthy suburban communities.

Personally, I couldn’t wait to leave.  And now that my family has moved, I see no reason to go back.

A little about Jesse Friedman: despite the heinous crimes he’s accused of, despite the film’s inconclusive stance about his involvement in (possible) abuse, despite his having gone on record (in court and on “Geraldo”) to say that he was sexually abused by his own father, despite the fact that he pled guilty…he wants the court to set aside his conviction.

Jesse has had ace criminal defense and civil rights lawyer Ron Kuby on the case for the last decade. Mr. Kuby is trying to get a court to permit Jesse to have a normal life that doesn’t require him to register as a sex offender, on the grounds that he never committed any sex offenses.

On November 7, the LASIS newsroom was treated to a brand new evidence reel crafted by Mr. Jarecki , originally made to persuade the Nassau County District Attorney’s office – in the midst of a reinvestigation into the case – of Jesse’s innocence.  Public relations guru Lonnie Soury, a man whose tireless work helped free the wrongfully convicted West Memphis Three, screened the reel for us, and stayed on to answer our questions.

The evidence in the reel is quite damning to the D.A., the police investigators, the judge, some parents, hypnotherapists, and everyone else who was involved in the case.  It’s easy to see how Mr. Jarecki and Mr. Soury became convinced of Jesse’s innocence.  Not only does Mr. Jarecki interview some of the (now grown) students who were integral to both Arnold and Jesse’s convictions, but he astonishingly has them on tape recanting their testimonies.  In addition, the reel shows detectives from the case – and the head of the Sex Crimes Unit of the Nassau County Police Department – admit to bullying tactics in order to get the children to describe their alleged abuse.  Worse, they admit that they didn’t ask the children what had happened to them.  They told them.

It was shocking to me, as for many years, I’d been so sure of the guilt of the Friedmans, both father and son.

But why, I asked Mr. Soury, did Jesse go on Geraldo Rivera’s television show after his sentencing and admit his guilt., explaining that he, in turn, had been sexually abused by his father?

Mr. Soury explained that Jesse was a young kid who went on the show against the advice of his lawyer, and said what he did in a gambit for leniency and compassion from the public.

Despite this evidence reel, the three-year investigation by the Nassau County DA reached this conclusion in June: Jesse was guilty.

The reel wasn’t the only piece of evidence at their disposal.  The most damning recent indictment might have been Arnold’s brother, Howard, an ardent defender of both Arnold and Jesse in the original film.  Howard claims that once his brother was in prison, Arnold admitted that he and Jesse had committed the crimes they were accused of.

Mr. Soury is convinced that Howard was lying, and when pressed, told us that he believes Howard is mentally disturbed.  That claim isn’t completely outlandish, considering that in the original documentary, we are told that Arnold admitted to raping his younger brother over a period of many years when they were small and shared a bedroom.  Howard claimed to have no memory of the ordeal.

This can all be so confusing.  This case is a big jumble of messy facts, some of which may just be anecdotal and some of which may be dispositive.  What we know for sure is that there was a great deal of reasonable doubt; Jesse should never have been convicted. But he was, and  to set aside a conviction in New York, there must be evidence of attorney misconduct, false confession, or new evidence.

I’m still conflicted about how I feel about Jesse Friedman’s innocence.  Arnold Friedman admitted to molesting at least two children, albeit not in his Great Neck home, and he may have molested many more.  And as we’ve seen Jesse stated that his father had sexually abused him.  Not all of the testimonies have been recanted, though it does seem likely that, at the very least, the allegations of rampant and violent sex acts — in full view of the class  — were an out and out fabrication.  There is no clear-cut answer here.

As someone from Great Neck, whose older brother was the same age as the children in the Friedman computer class, seeing “Capturing the Friedmans” as an adult law student shocked me to my core. Watching the film, I got chills as the camera swept through the streets I grew up on or focused tightly on landmarks from my childhood.   I felt as though I’d had a brush with horror, that I’d come so close to something unspeakable — both the appalling allegations and the disturbingly dishonest investigation and prosecution.

People who are wrongfully convicted of horrible crimes are not the focus of the first year of law school. Instead, in doctrinal classes at least, we spend a lot of time reading appellate decisions and carefully parsing a judge’s analysis for why a conviction was upheld or overturned. We don’t spend a lot of time on what happens when a conviction doesn’t get overturned and what happens to that person when, if lucky, he’s released.  As a result, I’m no more equipped to reach a firm conclusion about this case than a layman would be.

But perhaps that’s the key.  It doesn’t take advanced legal training to see the following:  If there never was any physical evidence of sexual abuse in this case, athe police investigation was fatally flawed, and the hypnotherapy the children went through has been found to plant “memories” more than recover them, doesn’t that mean that Jesse shouldn’t have to go through life with the mark of Cain on him?

Today, Jesse is married and living in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Legally, having children is problematic (he’s not allowed near schools). Reports are that he has forged a successful and happy life for himself.  It will be interesting to see whether his quest to set aside his conviction will be successful.


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