Sensational ’80s L.I. Abuse Case Getting Fresh Look

New evidence coming to light suggesting Jesse Friedman’s innocence.

07/17/12
Special To The Jewish Week
Photo Galleria: 

In 1987, a heavily Jewish Long Island community was roiled by horrific allegations that seemingly innocent after-school computer classes had in fact been the nightmarish scene of repeated acts of violent, mass sexual abuse against children. The case, which became the subject of a 2003 Oscar-nominated documentary, shattered the façade of affluent suburban Jewish life and sent a father and son to prison for years.

Now, 25 years after the case broke and nine years after the controversial film “Capturing the Friedmans” first raised serious questions about how the investigation was handled, additional information is coming to light that suggests the convictions may have been wrongful. In fact, four of the 14 original complainants now claim they were never abused.

In August 2010, Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice announced that her office would be launching a review into the 1988 conviction of Jesse Friedman, who, along with his father Arnold, pleaded guilty to several hundred counts of sexual abuse against more than a dozen children allegedly committed in the computer classes Arnold held in the family’s Great Neck home.

Jesse was released from prison in 2001 after serving 13 years of an 18-year sentence; Arnold committed suicide in prison in 1995.

If Rice’s review concludes that the evidence does not support the conviction, her office can join a motion by Jesse Friedman’s lawyers to have it vacated.

While Rice’s inquiry — which is not a criminal investigation and thus has no power to subpoena witnesses— had appeared to have stalled, the makers of “Capturing the Friedmans” recently submitted new materials to the district attorney indicating that four of the alleged victims were never abused.

Jesse Friedman, now 43, has long maintained his innocence despite his guilty plea, and the fact that he reiterated his guilt on Geraldo Rivera’s talk show immediately following his conviction. He has claimed that the circumstances of his family life — his father was an admitted pedophile under investigation for sending child pornography in the mail — as well as the climate in the community and statements by the judge at the time made him feel he had no choice but to take the deal or face spending the rest of his life in jail.

Rice’s inquiry into Friedman’s conviction came on the heels of what has been hailed as an extraordinary decision by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in August of 2010. In January of 2004, Friedman filed a motion in Nassau County court to overturn his conviction on the basis that the prosecution failed to turn over potentially exculpatory material to the defense. The Nassau County district attorney opposed the motion, a decision that Friedman appealed all the way up to the Second Circuit. While the Court denied as a matter of law Friedman’s bid to withdraw his guilty plea, it nonetheless urged the prosecution to re-examine the conviction, which it suggested had a “reasonable likelihood” of being wrongful.

The judges placed the Friedman case in the context of what they described as a “vast moral panic [that] fueled a series of highly-questionable child sex abuse prosecutions” that took place in the late 1980s and early ’90s and noted numerous problems with the investigation that were first revealed through interviews in the film. Among them were the fact that there were no complaints from any children until after Arnold was caught by U.S. postal inspectors, a complete lack of physical evidence for what were alleged to be instances of violent sodomy, and what the Court called “suggestive” and “aggressive” interviewing techniques which “an extensive body of research suggests can induce false reports.”

Further, because there was no trial, the Court also noted that the “petitioner never had an opportunity to explore how the evidence against him was obtained” and that, “on the contrary, the police, prosecutors and the judge did everything they could to coerce a guilty plea and avoid a trial.”

According to the film’s producer, Marc Smerling, he and director Andrew Jarecki got “reinvigorated” by the Second Circuit’s decision and began “reconnecting with people [we had reached out to] for the film, and connecting with others [for the first time] to get a clearer picture of their experiences in the classes.”

They have now spoken with five of the original 14 complainants and seven non-complainant computer students who sat alongside them in the classes. Four of the complainants, now in their 30s, told the filmmakers that they were never abused. The fifth, who was interviewed in the film, reiterated claims made in his original interview in 2001 that he had no recollection of any abuse until after he was hypnotized. Transcripts of some of these conversations were shared with The Jewish Week.

One complainant — whose grand jury testimony resulted in more than 10 charges, including sodomy, sexual abuse and endangering the welfare of a child — said: “I remember the cops coming to my house and the cops being aggressive and people wanting me to say what they wanted to hear. I’ll tell you, I never said I was sodomized. I was never raped or molested ... if I said it, it was not because it happened, it was because someone else put those words in my mouth.”

One of the non-complainants who attended the same course that produced 96 counts of sodomy and sexual abuse told the filmmakers that he had a “vague recollection of being interviewed at the time by someone who was trying to get me to say something that didn’t happen. … I always assumed that if something was going on in the classes, I would have had some sense of it, and I didn’t,” he said, adding that “[p]eople who were in class with me always felt that they weren’t allowed to say that nothing happened.”

Another non-complainant noted that he remembered “the police visiting my home and … being very intimidating, like to the point where one of the cops was sitting on my couch and his pant leg was up and I could see his gun. I was very insistent that nothing ever happened to me, and that never seemed to be good enough as a response. … Nothing happened to me, and I saw none of that stuff.”

The Jewish Week also spoke to the mother of a boy who attended a class that produced 23 counts of sexual abuse against Jesse Friedman. The mother — who requested anonymity for fear of being “run out of town” by a few people who are “still uber sensitive” about the case, but who said she would allow her taped interview to be shared with the district attorney — told The Jewish Week that she always thought that “this wasn’t exactly right.”

“I would go into the classroom [all the time] and pick my kid up and say ‘ooh, what did you do today on the computer?’ and everything seemed fine,” she continued. “If something had happened, don’t you think the kids would have been upset? They wouldn’t have been sitting at the computer playing games like nothing happened.”

The mother also recounted how she came home one day to find two police officers in her living room. While the officers assured her that they had not yet spoken to her then 11-year-old son, they told her they wanted to question him about the classes. According to the mother, the officers “started to grill him … they hammered him for a while, [asking] him the same question 95 times in different ways. After a while I said, ‘I [almost] wanted to confess to something.’”

While her son “stuck to his guns,” the mother claims she “never believed anything after that interview, because I could see how they could drag stuff out of kids that didn’t happen.”

Rice’s office has declined to comment on the new information, citing its ongoing review, but a spokesman noted that they are “encouraging anyone who has any information about the case to come forward.”

Attempts by The Jewish Week to reach Frances Galasso, the retired detective-sergeant in charge of the case, were not successful. However, Galasso recently told Newsday that “No one was ever forced to do or say anything.” Galasso also told that paper that she has been “interviewed at some length by Rice’s staff.”

The Jewish Week did reach retired judge Abbey Boklan, who presided over the Friedman case and was quoted in the film as saying that there “was never a doubt in my mind as to [Jesse’s] guilt.

In response to a request for comment about the new claims by the four men who were once alleged to be victims, Judge Boklan told The Jewish Week that “I think we should wait for the DA’s report to finish. I have no interest in getting involved at this point.”

For his part, Jesse Friedman is hopeful about the review, but also frustrated. “I gave the DA the benefit of the doubt when I started this [in 2010], [but] how much longer do I have to continue fighting this?” he told The Jewish Week.

“We have given the DA’s office a tremendous amount of exonerating evidence. People have come forward to say they were never hurt, they never witnessed anyone hurt.”

“What am I fighting to win?” he continued. “I am fighting because the truth is important. I am not fighting to get out of prison or to get off death row. I am fighting because I am innocent and what happened to me should never have happened. How much more is it going to take to prove my innocence? Whatever it takes. I am never going to stop fighting to prove my innocence, not just for me but for everyone who was hurt by the hysteria and false accusations.” 

Last Update:

10/05/2013 - 15:49

Comment Guidelines

The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.

Kathleen Rice and her team at the Nassau County Attorney's Office have done a truly magnificent job of investigating this case. I’m a private investigator and Jesse's guilt has now been conclusively proven. Jesse is on a campaign to shed doubt on his confessions, conviction and 13 year prison term. This recent and unexpected report by Nassau County details and refutes all suggestions of this. It's one of the most complete and thorough investigations I have read in my 27 years of this work and this department has done a true service to all victims involved.

If you are interested in the final truth of this case, please do yourself a favor and read the Nassau County's report. It puts to bed even the most remote sliver of Jesse's innocence. Here it is:

http://www.nassaucountyny.gov/agencies/DA/NewsReleases/2013/documents/Conviction-Integrity-Review-People-v-Jesse-Friedman-FINAL.pdf

jesse friedman is so guilty it's not even funny

Judge Boklan- "I know jesse and arnold friedman were guilty, I know they pleaded guilty in my courtroom" I have paraphrased. Anyhow, Judges know darn well that guilty pleas are done very often for reasons other than guilt. And Judge Boklan(am I spelling her name correctly?) is upset because she presided over an obvious miscarriage of justice and most reasonable people who are familiar with the case know it. The geraldo jail thing is exactly like the guilty pleas: it was given because he mistakenly thought it would get him out of jail quicker.

The heartbreaking thing in all of this is that the police will never even be reprimanded for their illegal activities. Trying to intimidate an 11 year old boy is a shameful act, and the alleged man should be ashamed to face his own children. Peace.

Judge Abbey Boklan and Detective Frances Galasso are a disgrace to their professions. It is scary to know that these are the types of people running our justice system. The state of New York owes Jesse a public apology and a very large check. They stole his youth and destroyed his family.

Anyone with a modicum of common sense and intelligence knows that Jesse Friedman is innocent and had no choice but to plead guilty to crimes that never even occurred. The only people who think Friedman is guilty don't know the facts of the case or have a vested interest in making sure Friedman's conviction is upheld (Hello Nassau County, are you reading this?).

People plead guilty all the time to crimes they didn't commit--that's why it's called a plea bargain. It is utterly naive to think that only the guilty plead guilty.

The Friedmans were railroaded by hysteria perpetuated by the police, judge & community. The majority of mass-sex abuse hysteria cases have proven to be false and have since been overturned over the last several decades.

Anyone who continues to believe the DA's office and Newsday needs to stop drinking the Kool-Aid and start using their common sense.

Its obvious he was guilty. He confessed on TV and plead guilty. There was a third defendant. His victims as adults continue to say they were abused. Child abusers are known to deny their crimes and recant. The movie obviously misrepresented the case. Let's hear the real truth about the case.

Stop posting stuff that happened 20 years ago - all of it was fake and came under pressure. In the environment in Great Neck, NY at the time, everyone believed the abuse happened and Jesse Friedman had to say he did something or face an even worse trial -- EVEN IF HE DID NOT ABUSE ANYONE. He spent over a decade in prison, during his twenties, over something his father did. He can't get that time back but maybe people can be brave and admit he didn't abuse them so he can stop being afraid.

How very sad. The countless destroyed families, and the suicide of the father may have been prevented via a different approach. We must show more compassion, in our everyday approaches. Though we may be justified in our feelings, once we publicly discuss, shame, villainy another human being it is nearly impossible to undo.

On the Geraldo show in 1989, Jesse described his own abuse by his father which started at around age 8 (his father would fondle him while reading him bedtime stories) and progressed to sodomy. Jesse told in explicit detail how he and his father abused the children during computer classes and Jesse helped "keep the children in line" during the classes. When asked why the children never told, Jesse replied: "For the same reason I never told." Jesse went on to reveal that he and his father threatened the children by telling them that they would "hunt down" their parents and burn their houses down if they talked. Several parents of the the victims are interviewed. They note that the Friedmans also threatened to send explicit sexual pictures of the children to area newspapers and television stations. Jesse explains that child porn was his father's "hobby" and admits that he posed for 100s of photographs and videos in which he sexually abused the children. Geraldo notes that Jesse told him the names of some of his father's friends with whom he traded child porn.

There was a third defendant in the case. Although he was not mentioned in the film "Capturing the Friedmans," Mr. Goldstein was a third defendant who was arrested along with Arnold and Jesse Friedman. According to this document, Goldstein, a former friend of Jesse's who was between 15 and 16 years old when he committed the crimes. He later became repulsed by the abuse, and six months before the Friedmans were arrested, Goldstein disassociated himself from Jesse Friedman and his activities. Goldstein, now age 19, confessed to the crimes and agreed to testify against both Arnold and Jesse Friedman in exchange for leniency.

Jesse pleaded guilty. He backed up his plea on TV.

Regarding the men who are now recanting: it is not unusual for male victims of male-upon-male sexual abuse to recant, as male-upon-male sexual abuse is considered especially shameful. These men want to go on with their lives without the stigma of sexual abuse, hence their change of heart now that they are adults and feel safe.

Jesse is guilty as charged.

In 2004, several of the victims came forward describing their abuse in Newsday.

"For Gregory, the hullabaloo over Jarecki's film -- and whether the director will pick up an Oscar tonight -- is a sideshow to the legacy of the abuse. Even now, Gregory said he sometimes wakes up at night shaking, especially after hearing of other child abuse cases on the news or elsewhere. What would be passing news to others, hits home for him.

"Diagnosed in his preteen years, Gregory said he has persistent rectal bleeding from the abuse. Memories aside, the physical scar will never let him forget. `This is the constant reminder I live with every day,' Gregory said, `that I was abused.'"

""We don't want the acclaim of this movie to keep other young boys who are being secretly abused silent for fear that their stories won't be believed. We don't want adults who might listen to the children turn a deaf ear, having seen the film and say, `These children are probably lying or exaggerating just like those Friedman victims in the movie.' We did not lie. We did not exaggerate. We were never hypnotized to tell our stories ... We told the truth then and we are telling the truth now."

In the New York Times: New York Times reporter Sharon Waxman notes that "Capturing The Friedmans" is being criticized by six of their former victims, who say the film omitted or distorted important information about their cases. "The six are suggesting that the director, Andrew Jarecki, created more ambiguity than actually existed about the case both to heighten the dramatic impact of the film and to elicit sympathy for the Friedmans."

Add comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.