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Jesse Friedman: Capturing The Truth?

Although Jesse Friedman never gave up hope that someday he would be cleared of the child molestation charges brought against him in 1987, he told the Great Neck Record in a recent interview that the Second Circuit’s powerful ruling and recommendation that the case be re-examined has also given him hope that families who were swept up and hurt by his case would “find healing as well.”

Almost 22 years ago, Jesse, then 18, and his father Arnold, then 56, were accused of sexually abusing a number of children attending a computer school in their Great Neck home. At the time, they pleaded guilty to all counts and both went to prison. Arnold committed suicide in prison in 1995. Jesse served his time in prison and was paroled in 2001.

Since being released, Jesse has been striving to rebuild a life and the legal appeals were on-going, but according to him, “on the back burner in my mind.” After being paroled, he attended Hunter College in New York City. He tried different jobs, once working as an electrician, but as he says, “who wants to be around a convicted sex felon?” He now runs an online bookstore which “pays the bills.”

He says that one of the best things that has happened to him since being released was meeting his wife, Elizabeth. When they met both were awed by the fact that both had attended the Village School in Great Neck, albeit in different decades, and both had vacationed with their families in summer bungalows at Shorham Beach. Both had jumped off the same big rock on the very same beach. After his parole ended in 2006, they took a cross-country road trip together. He says, “It was the first time I had been out of New York State in years...we got married in Vegas.” Today, they live quietly. But when the ruling was issued from the Second Circuit, Jesse was back in the headlines. This time with a different twist.

Although the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit issued a decision that denied his bid to withdraw his guilty plea, the court criticized police, prosecutors and the judge in the case, saying that they were overzealous.

The Second Circuit wrote in their summary: “Petitioner never had an opportunity to explore how the evidence against him was obtained. On the contrary, the police, prosecutors, and the judge did everything they could to coerce a guilty plea and avoid a trial. Thus, with the number of counts in the indictments and Judge Boklan’s threat to impose the highest conceivable sentence for each charge, petitioner faced a virtually certain life sentence if he was convicted at trial. And the likelihood that any jury pool would be tainted seemed to ensure that petitioner would be convicted if he went to trial, regardless of his guilt or innocence. Nor could he have reasonably expected to receive a fair trial from Judge Boklan, the former head of the Nassau County District Attorney’s Sex Crime Unit, who admitted that she never had any doubt of the defendant’s guilt even before she heard any of the evidence or the means by which it was obtained. Even if innocent, petitioner may well have pled guilty.”

After the federal appeals court urged her to do so, Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice announced in August that she would re-examine the case utilizing her assistants to be overseen by a panel of four experts in law enforcement, law and social science to make sure “the process is transparent and impartial.” As we go to press, the fourth expert has not yet confirmed his or her participation in the panel; therefore, none of the experts’ names have been released to the public.

After the release of the award-winning documentary, Capturing the Friedmans, in 2003, many people in Great Neck, who were caught up in the story, began to question whether justice had been done. There were others who asked the question, “If Jesse was innocent, why did he plead guilty?” We asked Jesse directly in an email and he wrote back: “Remember, I was facing trial with no defense witnesses, two “confessed” co-defendants, and on top of all the above, 243 charges against me. I had no reason to expect that after a multiple-months long trial that a jury would have carefully deliberated whether each and every crime charged against me was proved beyond a reasonable doubt, or whether they would have merely collectively decided if they thought I was a child molester (‘yeah’ or ‘nay’ vote) and if they decided I was guilty of something, return a verdict of ‘guilty’ across the board.”

Even if the jury had spent two months deliberating each and every charge, and returned 241 “not guilty” verdicts, and 2 “guilty,” Judge Boklan would have sentenced me to 50 years in prison. This was not horseshoes. It had to be 243 “not guilty” or else I would spend my entire life in prison.

I was 19 years old.

What would you do?”

There will be some who say, “Why stir all this old stuff up again? What is to be gained?” Jesse says that he had hoped, when he was in prison, that the children in the case would as adults, step forward and say, “It never happened.”

But as he researched the guided imagery and “implanted memory” techniques used by therapists that have since been called into question, he realized that for the children subjected to the therapy of the time, the abuse was real...even if it never happened. When Andrew Jaracki was researching the film, Jesse says that he never came across anyone who had a cognitive memory of abuse.  Jesse says, “The truth would set all of us free.”