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
In the past, Rice had fought Friedman's motions to consider new evidence. Now, she took the unusual step of appointing an advisory committee to oversee the review. Among the committee members was Barry Scheck, whose Innocence Project has successfully freed hundreds of inmates.
Jarecki leapt at the opportunity, flooding the D.A.'s office with the evidence he'd collected, including hours of interviews and 1,700 pages of raw, unedited transcripts. He cut the new evidence reel showed in the Great Neck convention hall last November. The opening lays out the core argument: "Given the absence of any physical or medical evidence, or prior complaints, the case against Jesse Friedman hinged entirely on the statements of: 14 computer students; Ross Goldstein; Jesse Friedman. Our investigation indicates that all three were coerced."
Of the 400-some students who attended the Friedmans' computer class, only 14 ever told the grand jury that they were sexually abused. Jarecki has tracked down 11 of them. Four told him flat out that they were not sexually abused. One had no recollection of abuse. Another said he didn't remember any abuse until he underwent hypnosis, a practice long since discredited as a reliable way to recover memories. The remaining five also refused to substantiate any abuse.
Michael Epstein, now 35, attended classes in which molestation was supposed to have occurred "in plain view of the other students." He now vigorously denies that any such thing happened.
"When I first heard about the accusations, I was dumbfounded," he says. "It didn't happen to me, and I knew there was no way it could have happened to anyone else while I was there."
Put into intensive therapy and pressed to "remember," a nine-year-old Epstein eventually fabricated his own account just to end the constant pressure.
"The tone in Great Neck was like a witch hunt," Epstein recalls. "There was a really pervasive assumption that the abuse had happened. All the conversation among the kids was 'Do you remember? Have you remembered yet?'"
But the child witnesses were only part of prosecutors' case against Jesse in 1988. There was also the testimony of Ross Goldstein, Jesse's high school friend.
"If there's ever another movie," Jarecki told the Great Neck audience, "Ross's story is at least as chilling."
By the summer of 1988, prosecutors had good reason to be nervous about their case against Jesse Friedman. With zero physical or medical evidence, their entire argument rested on the testimony of a handful of elementary-school-age children, and even that was looking shaky.
The grand jury had already thrown out the testimony of one boy because he was too obviously unreliable. For another witness, prosecutors made the unusual request that he be allowed to testify by pre-recorded video, rather than answering live questions. If the D.A.'s office was going to put Jesse away, it needed an older witness. It found one in Ross Goldstein.
At the time, Detective Fran Galasso told the Great Neck Record she would soon be arresting as many as four others in the case, "friends of Jesse who were invited to the Friedman home to participate in these sexual performances."
Police began showing the computer students copies of the Great Neck High School yearbook, asking them if they recognized anybody. This led to three more arrests. Goldstein was among them.
He'd been a friend of Jesse's, albeit not a close one. In the stratified universe of Great Neck adolescence, Ross was a cool kid. His father was Aerosmith's accountant. He dressed well, wearing a mullet and gold chain, and dated the head cheerleader. His social circle didn't overlap much with that of Friedman, who was more of an oddball.
What the two had in common was music. The high school had recently built an 8-track recording studio. Friedman helped put it together and spent long hours behind the engineering board.
"Ross was a magnificent guitar player," Friedman recalls. "We spent a lot of time in the recording studio, and that was basically how we became friendly. We were never best friends."
Even so, it was Goldstein—not Friedman's best friend, Judd Maltin, who had helped with the computer classes—whom police settled on. Friedman's lawyers believe Goldstein was only targeted because one of the students was friends with Goldstein's younger brother, and recognized him that way.
Goldstein was arrested the day of his high school graduation. Word of his arrest spread quickly among his friends. The teens of Great Neck gathered that night at Steppingstone Park on Long Island Sound, sharing their disbelief that in a town where parents always managed to save them from trouble with the law, one of the most popular and privileged members of the senior class had been arrested.
From the moment of his arrest, Goldstein protested his innocence. His parents hired a lawyer. But Goldstein soon found himself charged with 118 separate incidents of abuse, including 79 counts of sodomy.
Prosecutors threatened him with a 50-year prison sentence—but also offered a way out. If he testified against Jesse, he'd only do six months, and his record would be sealed upon release.
On September 8, 1988, Goldstein took the deal. But after he testified before the grand jury, the judge reneged. Instead of six months in county jail, Goldstein was sentenced to two-to-six years in prison.