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.”