By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
Uncapturing the Friedmans
The Friedmans initially fought the charges. But when prosecutors responded by adding hundreds of new charges in successive indictments, Arnold decided he had no choice but to plead guilty. His collection of child porn was the only physical evidence in the case, and he feared that to fight would only mean pulling his son into the undertow as well.
But Arnold's plea had the opposite effect. To protect himself from new charges, Arnold submitted a "close-out statement," in which he offered a blanket confession to sexually abusing every student in every one of his classes—even those who had accused him of nothing. Police used his admissions to solicit still more accusations, telling parents that despite their children's repeated denials, Friedman had confessed to abusing them. Arnold's move only tightened the noose around Jesse.
Worse, Jesse's case was overseen by Judge Abbey Boklan, a former sex-crimes prosecutor. She would later confess to Jarecki—on camera—that she never had any doubt of the Friedmans' guilt.
Peter Panaro, Jesse's lawyer at the time, also says that Boklan—who died last year—warned him that if Jesse took his case to trial, she'd make sure he served his sentences consecutively, and he would face more than 1,000 years in prison.
The prosecutors' trump card was Jesse's friend Ross Goldstein, who police accused of joining the Friedmans' molestation.
The two teens were shocked by the news. Both say Goldstein never attended any of the computer classes. In fact, Goldstein was charged with abusing children in the Friedman home before he and Jesse ever met.
Nonetheless, prosecutors leveled 118 charges against him—even more than Arnold faced. Goldstein was left with a no-win scenario: either maintain his innocence before a hostile judge, or cut a deal and negotiate the best sentence possible.
The 17-year-old caved. In exchange for admitting that both he and Jesse had abused the kids, Goldstein was promised six months in jail and a cleansed record upon his release.
Feeling boxed in and facing life in prison, Jesse decided he had no choice but to take his own deal.
He was sentenced to 18 years in prison. The court never heard a witness or saw any evidence.
Terrified of what awaited him in prison as a child molester, Jesse undertook some misguided damage-control. He gave an interview to Geraldo Rivera, inventing a story of his own abuse at the hands of his father.
Once in prison, Jesse reverted to maintaining his innocence—a position that led to being denied parole four times.
Arnold committed suicide in prison in 1995 by taking a massive overdose of antidepressants.
"Witch-hunt? No. To me, this is the Spanish Inquisition," said a man in the large crowd packed into the conference hall of the Inn at Great Neck last November. It was a popular sentiment. Twenty-five years since hysteria swept the town, memories of the Friedman case were still fresh enough to fill the room.
Andrew Jarecki had just screened his latest cinematic opus—an evidence reel that serves as an addendum to Capturing the Friedmans. Included were new interviews with some of the original victims, now grown up and admitting their claims were false.
Jesse Friedman and Elisabeth Walsh were at the screening, flanked by earpiece-wearing security guards in case passions still ran hot. Nearby, wearing his signature gray ponytail, was Jesse's lawyer Ron Kuby, a top-tier civil liberties attorney whose hyperbolic exuberance tends to take up even more space than his large suits.
Kuby joined Friedman's legal team in 2004, lending the high-profile muscle of a former partner of William Kunstler. His goal: to clear Jesse's name and free him from the "violent sex offender" designation that makes it all but impossible to hold a normal job, go to college, or even to have children, since he wouldn't be allowed to take them to school, day-care, or the park.
In 2004, Kuby filed a motion arguing that newly available evidence warranted reopening the case. The D.A. fought the petition, and successive courts rejected it on the grounds that it was filed too late.
But after years of appeals, the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals issued a landmark ruling. It agreed that Friedman's claim was filed too late, but it took the unusual step of delivering a scathing critique of the Friedman case.
The court ripped the hectoring and suggestive interview techniques of police, contending they "may have felt comfortable cutting corners in their investigation." The justices also slammed the D.A.'s office: "In this case, instead of acting to neutralize the moral panic, the prosecution allowed itself to get swept up in it."
The ruling noted that "the quality of the evidence was extraordinarily suspect." Taken together, the court said, "the record here suggests 'a reasonable likelihood' that Jesse Friedman was wrongfully convicted."
"It was an extraordinary decision," says Kuby.
Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice said she would reinvestigate the case, beginning a delicate balancing act. Though Rice wasn't on the scene when her office first prosecuted Jesse, complicated political implications remained. She was an elected official charged with investigating her predecessor's work in a case that still inflamed her constituents.