Recently I asked Jesse Friedman what he does when he comes across kids in public. The phone line went silent for several seconds, as if the connection had been dropped, and then he began speaking in a flat tone that quickly escalated into full-blown shouting.
“When you’re at the supermarket,” he said, “and you’re going to the checkout and you look at aaaaall the different cashier lines and you try and pick which one to get on the end of, how do you choose?”
“The shortest line,” I answered.
“The shortest line, right,” Friedman continued. “That’s how most people choose. I on the other hand scan for the line that does NOT. HAVE. CHILDREN IN IT! BECAUSE I AM NOT GETTING IN LINE BEHIND SOME MOTHER AND HER TWO KIDS WHO ARE RUNNING AROUND AND THROWING CANDY BARS AT EACH OTHER! If I’m standing in line and someone gets in line behind me, say at the movie theater or something with their kids, I’m stepping OUT OF LINE and I’M MOVING. If a kid bumps into me while he’s running around getting chased by his sister and then starts screaming — ‘THAT MAN TOUCHED ME!’ — Yeah, I’m staying as far away AS I CAN from children. Everywhere. Any time. I’m not going to stay in the proximity of children. It’s not safe.”
* * *
Jesse Friedman, in all likelihood, is America’s best known wrongfully convicted child molester. His case was a national news story in the late 1980s, when he and his father, Arnold, were charged with hundreds of counts of child sex abuse. In 2003, when Jesse was newly released from prison and on parole, he was thrust back into the national spotlight when he appeared in the Academy Award-nominated documentary “Capturing the Friedmans.” The film revealed serious flaws in the original investigation and cast considerable doubt on his guilt. After the film’s release Friedman — who has adamantly maintained his innocence for years — became a new face of the wrongfully convicted.
In the last decade, Friedman, now 44, completed his parole. He got married and started a business. He bought a house. But he has not won his freedom. Because he must still register as a sex offender, Friedman and his wife can’t live where they choose, travel where they wish, or consider starting a family. He cannot socialize normally or have a normal job.
For nine years, Friedman has fought to overturn his conviction, inspiring a campaign that has grown to include even the mother of a child he allegedly abused. Now, nearly three years after a federal appeals court ruled that he was likely wrongfully convicted and the current Nassau County District Attorney (DA) opened an investigation into his case, Friedman could be close to victory; the decision that could overturn his original conviction and remove him from the sex offender registry could come down this month. Until then, he can only wait.
* * *
Jesse Friedman has bright blue eyes, a neatly trimmed beard and thin hair. He speaks in a heavy Long Island accent in a voice that can be almost inaudibly soft. But Friedman also shouts. Sometimes he shouts in a good-natured way, when he’s telling a funny or dramatic story. But sometimes he shouts in an angry way, like no one I have ever met, like 25 years of raw torment is boiling beneath his skin.
Friedman and his wife, Elisabeth, live in a two-story house in Connecticut, a few blocks from the water. The neighborhood is gritty, but their home’s interior is stylish and comfortable. On one wall, there are pictures of Jesse and Elisabeth grinning under goofy sombreros; a vintage circus poster hangs on another. The Friedmans moved there four years ago, after saving and then pooling money with Friedman’s brother. It was a big sacrifice, but the couple didn’t feel they had a choice.
Since Friedman was released from prison in 2001, he has been evicted from three apartments. The last time, he and Elisabeth were living in Flushing, Queens, and there had been a problem with the heat. When Friedman approached the landlord about it, he was abruptly asked to pack up. “‘Look,’” Friedman remembers being told, “‘I found out who you are and I didn’t say anything about it, but enough is enough. I want you to move out.’”
Before moving, the Friedmans did extensive research on sex offender laws. They chose their current location largely because the stipulations were more lenient. After four years, he knows the first names of only a few of his neighbors, and only a few know his. Friedman goes to the post office nearly every day, for the online book business he runs from home, but the postal workers don’t know him well either. He doesn’t want them to.
Friedman has also been asked to leave four separate religious organizations — two synagogues and two churches. Eventually someone would find out who he is, he said. There would be an uproar, and sooner or later Friedman would hear he wasn’t welcome anymore. “They say it in different ways, but they’re all saying the same thing: ‘Please don’t come back, we don’t want you here. I mean, we’re good Christian folk, but we can’t have you here. It’s not appropriate.’”
When Friedman and his wife have tried to build friendships — friends of friends or whatever — the acquaintances didn’t last. Either they discovered or remembered the movie, or the relationships reached what Friedman calls “the third date moment,” when he sort of can’t go on any further without telling them, because it gets too awkward not to. And every time they disappeared.
That’s one reason Friedman has stopped trying to have any kind of social life. The other is that he suffers from PTSD, and to manage his stress, he decided to eliminate nonessential activities. He runs his business, he goes to the supermarket and he works on his case, usually 30 or more hours a week — coordinating conference calls, legal meetings, tracking down documents.
In the evenings, if the Friedmans aren’t tied up with deadlines for his case — Elisabeth, a sometimes-cosmetologist, also works to exonerate her husband nearly full-time — they like to curl up in bed with their cats and their Yorkipoo and watch Netflix.
They are happily married, Jesse stresses. They want to start a family, or at least consider it. But the conversations never get far: Jesse isn’t allowed within 500 feet of school property. He couldn’t pick up his daughter from kindergarten, or watch his son’s soccer game or go to a parent teacher conference. And his name, address, date of birth, photo, even car model and license plate are all listed on a Connecticut state website. It wouldn’t take long before all the other parents knew who he was. Surely no parent would ever let her child come play at the Friedman house.
The Friedmans’ family planning — like the rest of their lives — is on hold until the DA’s decision. They are waiting to decide if they’ll leave Connecticut, if Elisabeth will go to graduate school or if Friedman will go back to college or try a different career.
“There have been lots of people who said, ‘Why don’t you just move on with your life and forget it,’” Friedman told me. “Forget it? Forget it? I can never forget it. It never, ever goes away. There’s not a moment when I could possibly not think about it. There’s not a way to forget. It has consumed and tainted and affected my entire life. It destroyed my family. It robbed me of any ability to have a career, or friends, or any sense of a normal life.”
* * *
When he was 7 Friedman’s family moved from Queens to Great Neck, N.Y., a wealthy suburb on Long Island’s north shore. Friedman was a typical suburban middle-class kid. He rode his bike, played with friends, hung out at local parks. His family had a vacation home near Wading River, and every summer Friedman spent most of his days swimming at a little beach nearby, the one with a boulder in the middle of the sand. The kids jumped off it at high tide.
For a few years as an adolescent Friedman was overweight and depressed. His parents fought and his two brothers, both much older, had gone to college. He underperformed in school, although he dreamed of being a music producer. When he was 15, Friedman switched schools, to a tiny public charter in Great Neck called the Village School, and things began to turn around. He excelled academically and made new friends. He started dating and was elected class president. He also started helping his dad with the computer classes he taught out of the family basement. Arnold Friedman was a respected chemistry teacher in Queens, and while Jesse wasn’t particularly interested in computers, the job meant extra money and a chance to spend time with his father.
In 1987, Friedman graduated high school and enrolled at SUNY-Purchase, which he chose for its music program. That November, when he came home for a weekend to do laundry and eat home-cooked meals, he found his closet in disarray. He thought his mom had rooted through his stuff. On Sunday, when she was driving him back to school, Friedman said he knew she had gone through his things and that he didn’t appreciate it. “Oh no, Jesse! I would never go through your things like that!” Friedman remembers his mom replying. “It was the police.”
She explained that the police had recently come to look for pornography. Jesse doesn’t remember being particularly alarmed. “If my mom had said it was the DEA and apparently our dad’s been dealing coke, now that I can relate to,” he said. But his dad hadn’t been arrested. The police had just confiscated some magazines. “They left,” he said, “without arresting his father.”
Much more disturbing news arrived three weeks later. Friedman had been piecing together, in conversations with his family, why the police had searched his house: His dad was being investigated for something to do with mailing or receiving child pornography. Then one Friday night Arnold Friedman called a family meeting. After dinner at Jesse’s grandma’s house in Great Neck, Jesse remembers his dad confessing to being a pedophile. Arnold Friedman said he had ordered a child porn magazine from the Netherlands and had been caught in a sting operation by the postal service inspectors. He said he had been sexually attracted to adolescent boys all his life, and had, in the past, engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior.
Only one student out of nine had shown up for that afternoon’s computer class, and Arnold had panicked. On the advice of Jesse’s older brothers, Arnold called the students’ parents. Some hung up, but others explained what had happened: The police had come to their door, showed a child porn magazine they had confiscated from the Friedman house, and said they suspected Arnold Friedman of having abused their child.
Arline Epstein, whose son Michael was in the classes, is now advocating for Jesse Friedman. At the time she took notes of the hysterical phone call she received from Arnold Friedman. He had sounded barely intelligible, Epstein told me. He muttered a story about his neighbors, saying that they had had a grudge against him and were likely behind the whole thing. He pleaded with Epstein to bring Michael back to class, to help get everything back to normal. “They can’t ruin my life. I’m an [upstanding] member of [the] community,” Epstein wrote in her notes. “You know me, how I am with Michael. You know what goes on.”
Arnold Friedman’s whole professional life had been jeopardized. But neither Friedman imagined that Arnold — let alone Jesse — would be arrested. “They apparently were accusing my dad of sexually abusing kids in the computer class, taking pictures of the sexual abuse, and I guess selling child pornography,” Friedman remembers thinking at the time. “That’s what the police were investigating my father for doing, and since my father and I both knew that none of those things had happened, we weren’t that concerned.”
Four days later, Nov. 24, 1987, Frances Galasso, the Nassau County detective-sergeant in charge of the investigation into Arnold Friedman, called a meeting for the parents of the 30 or so computer students who had been interviewed by the police. According to Arline Epstein’s notes from the meeting, which have been submitted to the ongoing DA investigation, Galasso explained the sequence of events: After Arnold Friedman had been caught with the magazine, the police had obtained a warrant and searched the Friedman home, where they found additional magazines, photo equipment, and a list of 81 of Arnold Friedman’s computer students. The police had then notified Nassau County officials, who dispatched detectives to begin interviewing kids, whom they were convinced had been abused. So far the police hadn’t come up with much. “Prior to yest[erday] 11/23 had no child out of 30+ interv[iewed] that had been sodomized,” Epstein wrote. “Most said nothing happened.”
But Galasso also told the parents that usually the detectives couldn’t get kids to talk on the first try, and that she needed statements from the kids to make an arrest. Galasso said an arrest was likely within 24 hours. “It was very hot,” Epstein recalled of the meeting. “It was very hot.” (Galasso, who’s now retired, told me that she would not give further press interviews at least until the DA’s report. She has reportedly been interviewed for the investigation.)
* * *
The next day, the day before Thanksgiving, Jesse Friedman went to Manhattan with some friends to tool around and buy records. Around 4 in the afternoon, he called home to say he’d be back for dinner. An unfamiliar female voice picked up the line — it was Detective-Sgt. Galasso, Friedman would learn later — and informed him that his parents had been arrested. Friedman rushed back to Great Neck. News trucks and police cars were parked in front of his house, and when he went inside he was told that he, too, was under arrest. In jail that night, Friedman remembers, his father was convinced he was going to die of a heart attack. Jesse thought there had been an enormous misunderstanding. He thought everything would be cleared up soon.
At a hearing the next morning, Friedman learned that he and his father had been charged with sodomy, sexual abuse and use of a child in a sexual performance. Jesse Friedman was held in jail for two weeks, where inmates beat him. The police investigation continued and the charges kept building. According to the 2010 court ruling, “detectives would often visit the child repeatedly for follow up interviews, each lasting as long as four hours, until the child admitted abuse.” On Dec. 9, when Arnold and Jesse Friedman were arraigned, they were facing 52 counts of child abuse. Jesse Friedman was waiting in the courtroom when his then-attorney showed him the indictment papers for the first time. The first charge was an accusation of sodomy against Arnold Friedman, by a name listed as Barry Doe. The second was another count against Arnold, the name listed as Kenneth Doe. Friedman was confused: He didn’t know any Doe brothers.
In December 1987 and January 1988, there were two more parents’ meetings, held at local elementary schools. Detective-Sgt. Galasso was there, along with Assistant District Attorney Joe Onorato and a therapist who was seeing several of the alleged victims. According to the 2010 court ruling, they provided “expert advice” that “Every former student should be considered a victim and should seek therapy immediately.”
Hysteria was building in Great Neck. While some parents never believed the charges and refused to let the detectives speak with their kids, others began crusading against the Friedmans. There were shouting matches, threats, arguments with religious leaders. Later Friedman learned of a secret plan to run his father over with a car. “I couldn’t be seen in public,” he said. “It wasn’t safe.”
On Feb. 9, the Friedmans were arraigned on 91 counts of abuse against eight more children. After the arraignment Friedman went back to college. I asked him if he’d thought his life might return to normal.
“No,” Friedman answered, annoyed. “No, no. I was indicted for child abuse. I didn’t go back to normal. But I went back to college because that’s where my all stuff was … I think what you’re asking me is: ‘Did I think that my life was over and I was going to spend the rest of my life in prison or did I think that, well, innocent people don’t go to prison for crimes they didn’t commit, they hire lawyers who put people on witness stands and cross-examine them and the truth comes out and the jury acquits them because you’re able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you didn’t commit the crime?”
Then Friedman, still agitated, answered his own very long rhetorical question.
* * *
Months later, on March 25, Arnold Friedman pleaded guilty. He was convinced he would lose a jury trial and that a guilty plea might represent the best chance to save his son; it would mean that Jesse wouldn’t have his father, an admitted pedophile, as a co-defendant. Arnold read a statement in court admitting to having committed 42 counts of child sex abuse against 13 boys. He received a 10-year state prison sentence and a concurrent 10- to 30-year federal sentence. After his plea, press coverage exploded. In the eyes of the public, both Arnold and Jesse Friedman were sexual monsters.
There were allegations of boys being raped in sadistic games of leapfrog, of Jesse and Arnold raping children in plain view of other students. But there was no physical evidence — zero. No blood, or semen, or signs of abuse that the kids had previously reported to their parents or doctors. The mountains of child pornographic photos and videos the Friedmans had allegedly made never materialized.
That June, Ross Goldstein, a high school friend of Jesse’s, was also arrested and charged with 18 counts of child abuse. A few months later Goldstein bargained to a prison term of only six months and a classification as a youthful offender in exchange for testifying against Friedman. Later that fall, amid rumors of more arrests, Goldstein and seven children testified before a grand jury. In November, Friedman was arraigned again and, as a result of the testimony, charged with 37 new counts, bringing the total against him to 243. According to the court of appeals, Goldstein later admitted that he had falsely implicated others under “intense pressure from the police to come up with anything that seemed like cooperation.” (Earlier this year, the Village Voice reported, Ross Goldstein went to the DA’s office and confessed that his testimony was false.)
Since the beginning Friedman had maintained his innocence, that he never touched a single kid and never saw any abuse take place. But in a Nassau County courtroom on Dec. 20, 1988, Friedman pleaded guilty. Twenty-four times, one for each of the charges he was pleading to — the number that the prosecutors had agreed would satisfy all the counts against him — Friedman repeated the words: “On or about the first day of March 1986, to on or about the first day of July 1986, I did contact the victim’s anus with my penis.”
Friedman was facing an almost certain life sentence if the case went to trial. The judge, Abbey Boklan, said she would pursue maximum consecutive sentences; if a jury found Friedman guilty of two or three out of 243 counts he would almost certainly be locked up for life. According to a document submitted by Friedman’s team to the ongoing review, Friedman’s lawyer Peter Panaro “appeared completely unprepared to take the case to trial” and Friedman’s mother directed Panaro to push for a guilty plea. (The federal court ruling shows that the lawyer was skeptical of Friedman’s guilt but still allowed him to plead guilty.) That day Friedman remembers the courtroom was a kind of circus. Parents were shouting, swearing, and threatening him. When he read the charges, Friedman claims, he had no comprehension of what he was saying. “I was just substituting the worlds ‘the defendant did’ with ‘I did’.”
Friedman was driving when I asked about his decision to plead. As he spoke, his voice rose in speed and intensity until he was shouting some of the darkest, angriest words I have ever heard.
“I’ve been very clear about this a dozen times a year for the past 10 years,” he began. “I didn’t WAKE UP ONE DAY and say ‘YOU KNOW WHAT, FUCK IT! I’m just going to plead guilty and go to prison. Fuck it, I changed my mind. … It was a situation of ‘Well, I guess since NOBODY IS GOING TO COME TO MY DEFENSE, NOT EVEN MY OWN LAWYER IS GOING TO COME TO MY DEFENSE — NOT MY MOTHER, NOT MY FATHER, NOT MY FRIENDS, NOT THE LAWS, NOT THE TRUTH, NOT OTHER WITNESSES, NOT OTHER PEOPLE WHO WERE IN THE COMPUTER CLASSES, NOT 100 PEOPLE WHO KNOW THAT NOTHING HAPPENED ARE GOING TO COME TO MY DEFENSE, I GUESS I DON’T HAVE ANOTHER FUCKING CHOICE, DO I?”
* * *
At his sentencing, a sniffling Friedman read a prepared statement admitting to the crimes, claiming — in a story he would soon after repeat to Geraldo Rivera — that his father had abused him and coerced him to join in the serial abuse. Friedman made it up. It was an unsuccessful attempt to inspire sympathy from the judge. Judge Boklan sentenced him to six to 18 years, as per the pre-arranged plea deal, but she also took the unusual step of recommending to Friedman’s future parole board that he receive the harshest possible consideration.
When Friedman first arrived at Clinton Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in upstate Dannemora, N.Y., he was terrified. “Oh my God I’m going to die,” he thought. “I’m sure you’ve heard there’s a hierarchy in prison,” he told me. “Child molesters are murdered all the time in prison, and they’re raped all the time in prison. That’s what bored prisoners do to pass the time.”
For 13 years, Friedman moved between prisons. Sometimes he had a cellmate, sometimes he was alone. It didn’t matter. Everywhere he went, he was an animal, confined to a cage and hunted. “Was it ever safe? No. Did I ever go to bed and think, ‘OH GOD, TOMORROW’S THE DAY I’M GOING TO GET KILLED?’
“Yes, every night.”
On Feb. 14, 1995, Friedman was in his cell at the ultra-maximum security Southport Correctional Facility when a guard showed up at his door and said the Catholic chaplain wanted to see him. In the chaplain’s office, Friedman learned that his father had died in prison. Friedman returned to his cell. “Nothing else to do,” he said. “I was in prison.”
In March 2001, Andrew Jarecki, the wealthy co-founder of Moviefone, visited Friedman in prison. Jarecki had been working on a documentary film about Jesse’s older brother David, a successful New York City clown, when he discovered the story of Friedman’s family and refocused his film on the case against Arnold and Jesse.
Jesse Friedman told me that he and his family were initially opposed to the new direction of the film. He “was not going to be involved in something as crazy as [a] feature documentary exposé about my family,” he wrote in an email.
Jarecki remembers him as more cooperative. In any case, after his release, Friedman agreed to be interviewed, as did, among others, his mother, Elaine, numerous officials who’d been involved in the investigation and prosecution, and several kids who had allegedly been abused, by then young adults. The film, while remaining ambiguous on the Friedmans’ guilt, argued that procedural misconduct and questionable evidence had led to unfair convictions of the Friedmans. Detectives openly described steering the kids into admitting the abuse. The judge said she never had a doubt about the Friedmans’ guilt. One former student said he remembered the abuse only after hypnosis and was conspicuously inconsistent in attempting to recount details, while others denied the abuse outright. “What took place in Arnold’s classes was pretty much just straight computer classes,” one said.
The 2003 film won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and earned an Oscar nomination for best documentary feature. Suddenly hundreds of thousands of people across America knew Jesse Friedman’s story, and many sent donations and support. Friedman, who was at the beginning of his five-year parole, was thrilled, calling the response a tremendous vindication.
Several months after the film’s release, Friedman began an attempt to exonerate himself, and Jarecki decided to help. Even while he was making the film, Jarecki told me, it had been obvious to him that Jesse Friedman, regardless of his guilt or innocence — which Jarecki claimed at the time he was unsure of — had been railroaded by the justice system. It was also obvious to him that as Friedman emerged from prison and faced sex offender registration hearings and parole considerations, the injustices would only continue. “Given what I knew about Jesse and what I knew about the weaknesses in the case,” he said, “that seemed to me to be a travesty.”
Friedman and Jarecki found a pro bono lawyer, and the small team began formally compiling evidence of procedural misconduct — mostly material Jarecki had acquired while making the film — into a formal court submission. On Jan. 9, 2004, the team filed a motion with the Nassau County District Court to vacate Friedman’s conviction.
* * *
One day in 2004, Elisabeth Walsh, a waitress at a barbecue restaurant in Santa Fe, N.M., went to the video store and brought home “Capturing the Friedmans,” which she thought was a comedy. Watching it with her roommates, Walsh found the film jarring: The film featured footage of places she recognized from her childhood on Long Island — the beach with the boulder and streets and homes from around Great Neck, where she had gone to high school. Walsh also remembered the case. She had been a little girl at the time and had overheard her mother discussing it — Oh my god! Did you hear how horrible! What monsters!
Walsh made a contribution to Friedman’s defense campaign and wrote him an encouraging letter. A year later, Friedman recognized her name on a Village School alumni Web page and reached out. The two became friendly over email and after Walsh moved back to New York, she and Friedman eventually started dating. For Walsh, Friedman was a kind of litmus test: Her more open-minded friends had no qualms about him, she said, while the others fell away.
When Walsh was preparing to move in with Friedman, she hadn’t yet told her family whom she was dating. When her father learned, he strongly objected. It wasn’t just about her boyfriend’s guilt or innocence, Elisabeth said; he thought it would just be too hard to start a life with Friedman, and that the association would reflect poorly on the family. He threatened to cut off all contact with her, unsettling Elisabeth. She left her apartment in Brooklyn and boarded the subway to Manhattan, preparing to tell Jesse that she loved him but couldn’t see him anymore. Somewhere on the train ride she changed her mind. “I realized that I couldn’t,” she said. “I couldn’t be another brick in the wall of injustice that is built around him.”
* * *
In September 2004, nine months after Friedman filed his first appeal, his defense effort got a boost when the prominent civil rights lawyer Ron Kuby agreed to take the case. For Kuby, who said that he was then unsure of Friedman’s guilt, it was about fighting obvious violations of legal procedure. “It was clear to me that had he actually gone to trial and gotten convicted based on the evidence,” he told me, “his conviction would have been overturned long ago.” Initially, Kuby said, Friedman paid for his services. But Friedman was struggling to find work and his money ran out. The two made an agreement: “‘Why don’t we do this, Jesse,’” Kuby remembers telling Friedman. “‘We’ll just turn the clock off till we’re done, and at some point in the future if you get some big pile of money, you should remember me.’”
Jarecki was also becoming increasingly involved with Friedman’s campaign. He was continually contacted by people — often former students from the computer classes — who hadn’t yet come forward before but were now prepared to talk. “Either you can say to them, ‘Well, I’m sorry, we already made our film so there’s nothing to be done’ — or you can say to them, ‘All right, I’ll come interview you.’”
* * *
In November 2006, when he was 37, Jesse Friedman bought his first car, a well-used Volvo sedan. He couldn’t yet leave New York City limits, but with his parole ending soon he wanted to get away. Friedman’s parole ended on a Friday. On Monday he and Elisabeth, then engaged, drove over the George Washington Bridge, and Friedman left New York State for the first time in 20 years. The couple cruised west, spending Christmas in Santa Fe with Elisabeth’s sister, who supported the relationship. Later they stayed with friends in California.
On their return journey Jesse and Elisabeth got married at the Little Church of the West, the gothic-style chapel in Las Vegas. Elisabeth’s sister and Friedman’s brother David both attended. It was a really big deal to us,” Friedman told me. “We weren’t getting casually married in Vegas. It was a real wedding.”
The road trip lasted eight weeks. After Friedman’s two decades of hell, it was a happy time. “I thought that everything was going to be wonderful,” he said.
It wasn’t. Friedman’s PTSD, which had emerged toward the end of his parole, meant that he could erupt screaming at even mundane nuisances — a book placed in the wrong spot, say. The outbursts terrorized his wife and made it hard to complete even simple tasks. His legal battle only exacerbated matters.
Earlier that year, a Nassau County Court had denied his motion in full. Kuby filed an appeal, beginning another arduous process. Finally, on July 22, 2008, a district court judge ruled that Friedman would be allowed to appeal in federal court, and the case was argued in July 2009.
In August 2010 Friedman was driving when his cellphone showed a call from Kuby’s office. He pulled over and answered, only to hear Kuby shouting a few minutes later, “‘WE WON! WE WON! WE WON! WE’RE GOING BACK TO COURT!’”
Friedman rushed home and started reading the decision, but he was confused. If he had won, why did the appeals court say the motion to vacate his conviction had been denied?
Before he figured it out, Newsday was calling. And then so was the New York Times, NPR, CNN. Lawyers from all over the country called to congratulate him. Friedman hadn’t won, but he hadn’t lost either. The court ruled that it couldn’t overturn his conviction because of a legal technicality: The original motion had not been filed on time. The record, the court found, suggested a “reasonable likelihood” that Jesse Friedman had been wrongfully convicted. It strongly criticized the original investigation and prosecution and recommended that the current Nassau County District Attorney, Kathleen Rice, reopen Friedman’s case, which Rice did.
When I spoke to Jarecki this March, he had just returned from Israel and London, where he interviewed still more of the Friedmans’ former computer students. When he read one of the former students, a principal complainant, the actual charges and asked if he remembered the abuse, “He just laughed,” Jarecki told me. “And he said, ‘I certainly would have remembered something like that!’”
Jarecki has publicly discussed his work interviewing Friedman’s former accusers. Some of former computer students have recanted the accusations they made as children, saying they were never abused and never witnessed any abuse, with some not even aware that their statements had resulted in charges.
While it’s not clear that all former students now deny they were abused–before the 2004 Oscars six [anonymous] people claiming to be victims wrote to the Academy protesting the film–Friedman and his lawyer say they are unaware of anyone who still maintains that he was molested in the computer classes, with the possible exception of “Gregory Doe,” who said in “Capturing the Friedmans” that he remembered being abused only after undergoing hypnosis and has since reiterated the claim.
Jarecki has compiled some of his recent interviews, all of which contradict the original prosecution, into a new video he has shown at public screenings — including one in Great Neck.
Friedman hates Great Neck, once swearing he would never go back. “Great Neck is Auschwitz,” he told me. “I mean, who goes for a picnic in Auschwitz?” But last November Friedman and Elisabeth visited a hotel conference room in the town. In front of perhaps 150 people, Jarecki showed his video of the new interviews.
Friedman didn’t linger. Every event, no matter how positive, he said, is emotionally exhausting. But still, he said the screening was cathartic. “It’s all a little bittersweet,” he said. “To have that support back in Great Neck was definitely inspiring. And encouraging too, because this — my exoneration — is not just an exoneration for me. It’s a healing for the whole community.”
Now there’s nothing left to wait for except the DA’s report. Rice’s office has left Friedman with little to go on. “They’ve been working on the review for two and a half years and so far they’ve shared with us a sum total of zero documents,” Friedman told me. “We took tremendous umbrage — really, nothing?”
After several false starts, Rice’s team now says the decision will come by the end of this month. Friedman recently said he wasn’t convinced that the report would be released on time, or even that it would be the end of his ordeal. But, potentially less than three weeks from exoneration, he was calm. “I’m just really happy about the whole thing,” he said.
* * *
Sitting in his living room one day this spring, Friedman told me he feels fairly certain he’s going to win this time. “There’s degrees of winning,” he said, “but we’ve really undermined any basis for upholding the conviction at this point. I mean, nobody has come forward and accused me of molesting them since 25 years ago. I’m pretty confident that they don’t have any witnesses or valid evidence to point to and say, ‘Well, yes, we refute all of this and this … there’s nothing to uphold the conviction at this point. It’s just a matter of procedure, I think, at this point.”
“You must feel great,” I said.
“No. I don’t feel great,” he replied. “I feel like the government stole 25 years of my life. And the most I’m going to get is a half-assed apology, if that.”
Friedman says he’s tired of telling his story, of answering the same questions again and again, of giving painful explanations. But he still does it.
At some point I asked why he didn’t just refuse, at least until the decision was announced, and the case was sure to blow up in the media anyway. He responded with another intense monologue, the words spilling out a thousand miles an hour.
“The American public is wholly ignorant about way too many things,” he began. “And one of them is this notion — it’s called the “Law and Order” Effect. Everybody thinks that the criminal justice system works the way “Law and Order” does. They think that truth and facts always are uncovered by hardworking determined people, that guilty people go to prison and innocent people are found to be innocent and the real perpetrators get caught and the whole thing gets neatly wrapped up in 42 and a half minutes if you take out the commercials. That’s not how the criminal justice system works. So if me telling my story to Matt Lauer can get more people to go to iTunes and watch “Capturing the Friedmans” and learn that just because you read something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true — and can get people to stop and think a little more critically and think for themselves about what they read in the newspaper or hear on TV rather than just accepting what the local news regurgitates off the AP wire — then that’s a good thing.
“Because someone who reads a newspaper article or sees a stupid thing on NBC is going to end up on a jury one day, and hopefully they’re going to sort of know what they’re doing when they walk into a courtroom and when the evidence is presented they might think back and ‘Oh yeah, I watched that movie. The first time I watched the movie it seemed like this guy was guilty. Then I watched a second time and yeah, maybe but maybe not. And so I’m sitting here in the courtroom — maybe I should sort of be open-minded and listen to the evidence and not just sort of take the DA’s word for it that this guy is guilty because he’s sitting here and he was arrested for the crime.’
“So that’s why I sit down with Matt Lauer — because I hope that I might help somebody else, someday, somewhere, somehow. That’s why I do it.”
Then Friedman was done. With the monologue. With the explanations. With the interview. He let out a long, loud sigh, sounding annoyed.
“I’m exhausted,” he said.
Trevor Bach is a 2013 graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.More Trevor Bach.