Posted Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2012, at 3:34 PM
Jesse Friedman and his father, Arnold, in Capturing the Friedmans.
Two years after a federal court excoriated his prosecution and declared it likely that he was wrongly convicted, Jesse Friedman remains branded by the state of Connecticut as one of its most serious threats to children. By law, the state publicly lists not only his current city but also his street address and apartment number. It lists his car (a Subaru Impreza, license plate EKX9153). It lists his weight (158 pounds as of last December). And it includes a picture of Friedman, bearded with thin-framed glasses, staring blankly into the camera.
Today marks 25 years to the day that police turned up at his door on the eve of Thanksgiving and arrested his father, Arnold, on child sex abuse charges. That same night, as his father sat in handcuffs and he fumed with his brother in the family’s backyard, the police asked him to come inside the house, too. Soon he found himself facing dozens of charges of raping young boys who had come to his home for computer classes. Under the threat of a life sentence, Jesse pled guilty and went to prison for what turned out to be 13 years. He was 19 at the time.
Though there is no doubt Arnold Friedman was a pedohile—police found a trove of pornography featuring adolescent boys in the house—there has never been any physical evidence of abuse. The allegations came only after the police discovered the porn and the computer class and started asking questions.
The prosecution received a shattering treatment in Capturing the Friedmans, Andrew Jarecki’s 2003 documentary that tracked how the case brewed in a panicked town at the height of child-abuse hysteria in the ’80s. Shrouded in ambiguity, the movie led to a heated conversation at the time, especially after it earned an Academy Award nomination for best documentary. Victims anonymously decried what they called the movie’s attempt at “silencing the plaintive voices of abused children,” while advocates for Friedman accused Jarecki of leaving out footage that showed his innocence solely to stoke public debate about the movie.
Last weekend, nearly a decade later, Jarecki and a legal interest group invited the community of Great Neck, N.Y., where the events took place, to view what a press release called “compelling new filmed evidence” that Jesse Friedman is innocent. Much has happened since the movie was released in 2003—Friedman got married, for one thing, and began a quiet legal effort to overturn his conviction. That culminated in the federal appeals court decision in 2010, which had harsh words for prosecutors and a Long Island judge but declined to overturn his conviction because it was bound by legal technicalities. The current Long Island district attorney reopened the case shortly after the decision, and it remains pending.
In Great Neck, a quiet, affluent suburb about 20 miles outside Manhattan, a small crowd of locals and players from the original case showed up for the screening of the new material last weekend. If Capturing the Friedmans was so powerful because the family documented so much on camera—a habit that only seemed to intensify as their lives fell apart after the accusations—the footage screened in Great Neck was decidedly legalistic and methodical. The family barely appears, except in the same home footage used in the documentary, with the focus instead shifted to testimony in the case and the tactics of police and prosecutors.
More than an hour long, the new reels focus on the original victims cited in the complaint. Many still refuse to go public, but several others have recanted, including one who appears on camera to say he is sure he was never abused. Some parents of the alleged victims also say they think Jesse Friedman was wrongly convicted, including one mother who recorded detectives calling her son names as he tries to deny the abuse. Other students who attended classes where abuse allegedly took place say they have no memory of it. (One former student reports, “I don't remember any bad experiences, except for not liking computers, you know?”) The only victim who still alleges abuse and is willing to speak on camera describes elaborate sex rituals, but he says he remembered them only after he was hypnotized.
Jesse Friedman’s guilty plea, a persistent question mark in the case, also gets renewed scrutiny. Jarecki zeros in on pressure from the judge and prosecutor, who ultimately brought 243 charges against Jesse in three indictments in an apparent effort to force a plea. (Arnold also pled guilty in what the family says was an effort to spare Jesse.) So desperate was Jesse to avoid life in prison that he and one of his brothers claim they traveled to Times Square, then still a seamy red-light district of sorts, in an attempt to find child rape videos he could turn over to the police. Prosecutors, one of Jesse’s lawyers explains, had promised to reduce his charges greatly if he could produce footage of the attacks—none of which was ever found despite claims by victims that they were filmed.
Longtime Great Neck residents at the screening described afterward the atmosphere of certainty at the time; one woman even apologized directly to Friedman, who attended but sat silently for most of the event. Many others spoke of “healing.” No one in attendance voiced any doubts about his innocence.
Jarecki repeatedly stressed that Friedman’s life remains fractured—he and his wife can’t have children, because they could never live near a school or be a part of that community (“Can you imagine trying to arrange a playdate?”). And there remains the damning stain of the sex-offender registry, where he is slated to remain for the rest of his life. Shortly before the audience was dismissed, Friedman himself stood up and spoke haltingly in a quiet voice totally divorced from the brash, breathless teenager depicted in Capturing the Friedmans. “All I have ever asked from anyone involved in this case is just to come forward and tell the truth,” he said.