A DISCUSSION OF LAW AND JOURNALISM

Tag: wrongful conviction

“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.

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A Stacked Game of Cards

By José I. Ortiz

Autumn’s here, and with it, the Forum on Law, Culture and Society’s annual Film Festival at Fordham Law School. Coincidently, I  attended a film screening at this festival on the same date (October 22) last year. I found a seat (not easy in the filled-to-capacity room) and prepared for what was in store for me this time. I had never even heard of the evening’s film – “The Exonerated” – before seeing it up on the festival’s website.

Before long, Thane Rosenbaum — the film festival’s lively emcee and moderator of the post screening discussion — welcomed us and told us a bit about the film, which helped explain why I’d never heard of it: it was produced by and aired on a now defunct cable network, CourtTV. “Oh boy,” I thought. “This won’t be any good.” I was so wrong.

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The West Memphis Three: An A-Z List of Justice Gone Wrong

By Meghan Lalonde

West Memphis, 1993: Three eight-year-old boys brutally murdered in small-town Arkansas. Three satanic teenage “punks” to blame it on. When looking for suspects, these teenagers fit the bill – long hair, heavy metal fans, all dressed in black. There was even a confession. The story caught the attention of two HBO filmmakers, who decided to make a documentary about the horrible crime that traumatized the community.

The film that introduced the world to defendants Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley – the West Memphis Three (WM3) – wasn’t supposed to be about wrongful convictions. It wasn’t supposed to be a project that led to two additional films over the next 18 years. It just turned out that way.

Last month, HBO premiered the third and final chapter of the documentary, “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory.” I’d heard about it and thought it seemed interesting so on a rainy Friday afternoon I turned on the TV to give the first one a shot. Six hours, two sandwiches, and a full liter of Diet Coke later, I’d watched all three films, and I was reeling.

Searching for order in all the disorder, I’ve boiled it down to an A to Z list of some of the haunting and perplexing aspects about this terrible miscarriage of justice. There will be no “Spoiler Alert” here. Google the film and you’ll see that the three convicted murderers are free, released in August 2011 after entering into Alford Pleas (see “P” below). As with so many epic stories, knowing the ending doesn’t minimize the gripping nature of the journey.

Alternative suspects. One of the many critical shortcomings of the West Memphis Police Department was failing to search for leads on additional suspects. First, police never investigated Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one victim with a history of violence. Mr. Hobbs claimed he hadn’t seen the children the day they went missing, but his neighbors are certain they saw him with the kids after school, around the time they were last seen. In 1993, these neighbors were never questioned. Police also botched the investigation of an unidentified black man who was seen at a local restaurant covered in mud and blood on the evening of the murders. They collected blood samples from inside the restaurant, then lost the evidence.

Blood. When the bodies of the three boys were discovered in a stream they were found naked, hogtied, stabbed, and mutilated. The prosecution argued that the murders occurred near where the bodies were found, but if that were true, wouldn’t there have been blood found at the scene? There wasn’t. Not even a drop. The use of a knife and ritual bloodletting thought to be part of satanic rituals were integral to the prosecution’s theory against the WM3 and yet there wasn’t any blood to be found. Recent forensic analysis has explained that the scratches and skin flaying of the victims were actually due to animal predation.

Celebrity support. Celebrities figured among thousands of supporters who learned about the WM3 from the first film. In 2010, Johnny Depp and Eddie Vedder hosted a benefit concert in their support. When the WM3 were released in August, Damien Echols, the defendant who had spent 18 years on death row, said he wanted to go to Disneyland. Mr. Depp made it happen.   (more…)

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