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Jesse Friedman, Resolutely Maintains Innocence

Seeks transparency in district attorney’s review of his case

The Friedman child abuse case that gripped Great Neck, and the nation, almost 25 years ago continues to reverberate. Jesse Friedman, who served 13 years in prison and was paroled in 2001, has continued to assert his innocence and to fight to overturn his conviction. He and his father, Arnold, were accused of multiple counts of child sexual abuse in computer classes run from their home. Both eventually pled guilty avoiding trials. Arnold committed suicide in prison in 1995.

Jesse Friedman’s most recent lawyer, Ron Kuby, who is well known as a civil rights attorney, has enlisted former NYPD detective Jay Salpeter, now a private investigator, to independently seek more evidence in the case. A confidential hotline has been established so that anyone with information, no matter how seemingly inconsequential, can call 516-660-4385.

In the summer of 2010, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit denied Friedman’s bid to withdraw his guilty plea due to a technicality of filing in a timely fashion; however, the court issued a sharply worded recommendation that the Nassau District Attorney’s office re-examine the case. Its conclusion stated: “In sum, an appellate court faced with a record that raises serious issues as to the guilt of the defendant and the means by which his conviction was procured, yet unable to grant relief, is not obligated to become a silent accomplice to what may be an injustice.”

Grave questions had been raised in Friedman’s case after the documentary, Capturing the Friedmans by Andrew Jarecki was released in 2003. Among other things, it explored the high-pressure tactics used by the police in interviewing the children and the techniques of hypnosis used by psychologists, popular at the time and later discredited, for uncovering memories, now believed to be false memories.

The Second Circuit ruling also touched on the national atmosphere at the time. Hysteria and moral indignation stemming from highly publicized cases of bizarre, sadistic mass sexual assaults on children, with charges of Satanism as well were the order of the day. The ruling states, “The record in this case suggests this is precisely the moral panic that swept up Nassau County law enforcement officers. Perhaps because they were certain of Arnold Friedman and petitioner’s guilt, they were unfazed by the lack of physical evidence, and they may have felt comfortable cutting corners in their investigation.”

The Second Circuit was equally critical of Judge Abby Boklan writing, “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.” She had also ruled to allow TV cameras in the event of a trial and had stated she would not grant a change in venue.

Salpeter, who compiled evidence that eventually resulted in freeing Marty Tankleff, another famous Long Island defendant, after he had “confessed” to the brutal slaying of his parents, knows full well how these false confessions can occur.  In an interview on PBS’s Frontline, Salpeter outlined how easy it is to get a false confession from a defendant. If an innocent person is confined to a closed room with nothing but hours stretching ahead, he said, “I will weaken you mentally, physically, until you will confess ... all you will want is to get away from me.”

A few months after the Second Circuit ruling, District Attorney Kathleen Rice announced that her office would take another look at the case and that she would appoint an outside panel of experts to oversee the process.

At the time, Friedman expressed to the Great Neck Record that he was hopeful that at last there would be resolution and that “all the families who were swept up and hurt by his case would find healing as well.”

Months later, an oversight panel was recruited.

Now, two years later, Friedman tells the Record that he has done everything possible to cooperate with the DA’s office by giving full access to all of his medical records, including psychiatric records, and answering their questions in three separate interviews.

According to Friedman, the DA’s office informed him that it took them three months to even get the investigation’s files from the Nassau County Police Department. He also received unverified information that the DA’s office sent letters to all the complainants asking that they get in touch with the office, but that none have responded. His request to at least know if inquiry letters had been sent and if there had been any responses were not answered.

His requests for more information about how his case would be reviewed also did not result in a response.

In February of 2012, his attorney submitted a brief to the DA’s office asking for transparency, a non-adversarial climate and for information about what the evidentiary standard would be.

The Record attempted to follow-up on this information from the DA’s office and received the following statement from spokesperson Chris Munzing: “The Friedman review is robust, active and ongoing with benefit of a distinguished panel of experts. They will report their findings when their comprehensive review is complete.” Specific questions that were emailed did not receive a response.

All of the team members working on the Friedman case are in agreement that indeed the four-person panel is a distinguished one. Kuby told the Record, “It is not clear to us how empowered the panel is and how much access they have to important records...In the best practices of these kinds of investigations, information should flow two ways ...(The defense has not received any of the information collected by the DA’s office.) We hope that the panel is asserting its independence.” He added that while grand jury proceedings are confidential in such cases, there are legal measures that can be taken to allow the panelists access.

The people who agreed to serve on this panel are:

Patrick J. Harnett is a 32-year veteran of the New York City Police Department and a current law enforcement/public safety consultant. While working in New York City he served in many command positions, including chief of NYPD’s narcotics division and commanding officer of the department’s major case detective squad. He was also the commanding officer of the emergency service unit, the elite Tactical (SWAT) and Rescue component of the NYPD, and of the largest police precinct in the Bronx.

Susan Herman is currently a professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at Pace University. She served as the executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime from 1997 to 2004. Prior to that position, she served as the director of the domestic violence division of Victim Services in NYC. Herman is the author of Parallel Justice for Victims of Crime.

Mark F. Pomerantz is a partner in the law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, and a nationally known trial lawyer. He was a federal prosecutor in the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, and headed the criminal division in that office from 1997 to 1999. Pomerantz has taught advanced criminal procedure at Harvard Law School and federal criminal litigation, appellate advocacy and contracts at Columbia Law School.

Barry Scheck is the co-founder and co-director of the Innocence Project at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. Scheck is an award-winning scholar and legal advocate who has focused primarily on criminal justice policy and exonerating wrongfully-convicted people and became involved in studying and litigating issues concerning the use of forensic DNA testing. Scheck serves as member of the New York State’s commission on forensic science, a body that regulates all crime and forensic DNA laboratories in the state.

Last week on May 17, Friedman and his attorney, Kuby, met with the panel members and a number of attorneys in the D.A.’s office. Friedman read a prepared statement which delineated in a timeline his gradual descent from proclaiming his innocence to finally pleading guilty. He wrote, “I was a very young man, accused of horrific crimes that I knew I did not commit and in fact did not happen at all. I pled guilty after every hope of help, from my family and my attorney and my friends was destroyed, and the threat of consecutive life sentences by Judge Boklan made to my lawyer and family left me certain I would spend the rest of my life in prison if I went to trial.  My story is about surviving without losing touch with my own sense of humanity in the process.”  

Living as a Level 3 Violent Sexual Predator severely restricts one’s freedom. Since his release from prison, Friedman has been evicted from three residences because fellow tenants protested his presence, has been asked to leave four religious congregations and in some states is prohibited from living or traveling within 2,500 feet of schools, parks, playgrounds, libraries, museums, beaches and sporting events.

Now, running an online book service, Friedman, who describes meeting his wife, Elizabeth, as “the best thing that has happened to me,” has found a home where they can now live quietly, but their dream of having a child is filled with peril since Friedman would not be allowed to even visit his child’s school. They worry that any child of theirs would suffer social isolation and be subject to bullying.

Friedman concluded his statement to the oversight panel by saying, “Child sexual abuse is a terrible crime, and no one wants to believe that our system cannot faithfully adjudicate these kinds of crimes effectively. By unflinchingly dissecting what went wrong in my case, we have an opportunity to ensure progress in dealing with these situations in the future.

“I am never going to stop fighting to prove my innocence because the truth is important. What happened to me is unacceptable.”