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Will Jesse Friedman Be Set Free?

From a prison with no walls

An Article 78 proceeding, filed by Jesse Friedman’s attorney, Ron Kuby, that seeks to compel the Nassau County District Attorney’s office to release pertinent documents in his case including grand jury minutes under the Freedom of Information Law was heard in the Nassau County Supreme Court on June 4. Although considered a routine preamble to scheduling the presentation of arguments, it resulted in a surprise announcement by Assistant District Attorney Robert Schwartz that the DA’s office will issue a report generated from the re-investigation of the child sex abuse case by June 28, unless “unforeseeable circumstances” prevent doing so.

 

According to Friedman’s lawyer, in the report, District Attorney Kathleen Rice may either move to uphold the conviction, overturn and dismiss the conviction or overturn the conviction and call for a trial. 

 

In 1987, Jesse along with his father Arnold, was accused of sexually abusing boys in computer classes run in the family home in Great Neck. Arnold, who had been the subject of a postal sting operation involving child pornography, pled guilty and committed suicide in prison. 

 

Nineteen-year-old Jesse, after months of protesting his innocence, eventually pled guilty as well in the face of ever-mounting charges, a frenzied atmosphere,  the collapse of his family, and the threat of consecutive sentences made by Judge Abby Boklan to his lawyer. Since the case never went to trial, evidence gathered was never made available to Jesse Friedman’s attorney at the time, Peter Panaro.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in 2010 denied an appeal by Friedman to withdraw his 1988 guilty plea due to an untimely filing, but in a sharply worded decision urged that Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice re-examine the case, citing the ethical responsibilities for district attorneys in general to take “reasonable remedial measures when it appears likely that an innocent person was wrongly convicted.”

 

The Second Circuit decision flatly stated, “In this case, the quality of the evidence was extraordinarily suspect and never subjected to vigorous cross-examination or the judgment of a properly instructed jury.”

 

A few months after the Second Circuit had issued its decision, DA Rice announced that she would re-investigate and appointed a 4-person prestigious panel of experts to oversee the re-examination of the case and make recommendations for her to consider in making a decision. Rice had not been involved in the original case.

 

On Tuesday, Nassau County Supreme Court Justice Dana Winslow met with the attorneys in his chambers and according to Kuby, the judge wanted to know if DA Rice’s report is to be released imminently, since there is the potential that the Article 78 hearing might become moot. 

 

In the public court session that followed, ADA Schwartz gave an example of what he meant by “unforeseeable circumstances” stating that if another complainant came forward with new testimony, the DA’s office would need to take that into account in the report which would delay its release.

 

Jesse has a dedicated team of people who are convinced of his innocence and who have reached out to the complainants and young men who attended the same classes, but were non-complainants, to give statements on tape regarding their experiences. Led by Andrew Jarecki and Mark Smerling who produced the highly acclaimed documentary Capturing the Friedmans along with investigator Jay Saltpeter, they have turned over to the investigating panel taped interviews and 1,700 pages of documents. To date, six complainants out of 14 have fully recanted and five have refused to substantiate the abuse.

 

Others associated with the case have spoken out publicly. Scott Banks, law secretary to Judge Boklan and who was privy to grand jury testimony has said, “The lack of any medical testimony, any physical evidence bothered me at the time.” 

 

Michael Epstein, in conversations with Jesse’s team, revealed that the constant pressure from police and his therapist eventually led him to conclude that the only way to stop the questioning was to capitulate. He says, “I regurgitated these crazy stories I’d heard from other kids.” However, he refused to go before the grand jury saying later, “I didn’t want to lie under oath.”

 

His mother, Arline, while joyful to learn so many years later that her son had not been abused was at the same time deeply troubled that she had not believed him at the time. She says, “It is awesome and humbling to me that a nine-year-old boy had the strength to stand up and tell the truth for as long as he did.” She has also turned over scores of notes that she kept during the months of meetings with other parents and police.

 

According to attorney Ron Kuby, the most recent person to come forward is Scott Goldstein who was a teenager at the time and upon being accused by police of being a participant in the abuse, eventually succumbed to the pressure and made a deal to testify against Jesse and face six months in prison. However, after his testimony, he was sentenced to two to six years in prison and served for one year.

 

Kuby says that Goldstein has recently appeared before the DA’s review panel testifying as to how he was railroaded into making false charges and confessing to crimes he did not commit.

 

Spokesperson from the district attorney’s office John Byrne gave the following comment: “To protect child sex crime victims and their privacy, as well as the time-honored secrecy of the grand jury, the law precludes prosecutors from disclosing the sensitive information that Mr. Friedman has requested under FOIL.  A robust review of Mr. Friedman’s case is ongoing in consultation with a panel of leading experts and a comprehensive public report will be issued at its conclusion.”

 

Jesse Friedman, who was present at the Mineola courthouse, said that he was “cautiously optimistic” after the day’s events. He and his wife Elisabeth have been on tender hooks for months now as they await the DA’s report. While they would like to start a family, both Elisabeth and Jesse agree that without an exoneration, it would be unfair to subject a child to the life they must lead.

 

Although he was released from prison in 2001 after serving time for 13 years, Friedman’s status as a Level 3 violent sexual predator severely restricts his ability to live a life of freedom. Since his release, he has been evicted from three residences because fellow tenants protested his presence, has been asked to leave four religious congregations and is prohibited from living or traveling within 2,500 feet of schools, parks, playgrounds, libraries, museums, beaches and sporting events.

 

Friedman said, “Understanding what happened is like putting a giant puzzle together.  One reason we have filed for more documentation from the DA’s office is that one person, who was listed as one of the 14 complainants recently came forward and said, ‘I never even knew I was listed as a complainant ... nothing ever happened.’”

 

Jesse, who in spite of everything that has happened to him, has compassion for the boys and the families who were caught up in the hysteria of the era. He knows from first hand experience the damage that is done when telling the truth is viewed as “denial.” He firmly states,  “There were never any crimes. I know. I was there ... It is a terrible thing to not be believed when you’re telling the truth.”