This week’s cover story tells the story of Jesse Friedman, who in 1987, as a teenager, was caught up in a public hysteria built on suspicions that he and his father had sexually abused the nine- and 10-year-old students who attended the computer classes they taught in their home. Friedman was railroaded into a guilty plea, and served 13 years in prison.
Now, a new report, expected any day from the Nassau County District Attorney’s office and based on new evidence, could vacate his conviction and clear his name.
Friedman and his wife, Elisabeth Walsh, spoke to the Voice for three hours in their Bridgeport home on May 11. What follows is that interview, edited for clarity and length.
You’re awaiting a report from the office of Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice that could clear your name. What would that mean for how you live your life?
Friedman: As soon as Kathy Rice decides to announce that the guilty plea was coerced and there’s a reasonable likelihood that I was wrongfully convicted, the conviction is gone, the charges are dismissed, the sex offender registration vanishes, and it all goes back to zero. I still have to dwell with the notion that I don’t think I’m ever going to be fully anonymous. As much as I would no longer be a registered sex offender, I don’t know how much I will ever be just an anonymous citizen. I’m always going to be the guy from that movie who was falsely accused of child molestation.
Are you feeling confident about what the District Attorney’s report will say?
Friedman: I am freakishly optimistic. Most of my life I have always been the pessimist in any room. But I know how much exonerating evidence has been presented to the District Attorney’s office. We have proven that the guilty plea was coerced, that the crimes never occurred, that the children lied, that there was gross police misconduct, there was gross prosecutorial misconduct, that there was rampant hysteria–we have proven all of these things. Whether or not the DA is going to play a political game with this or not, I don’t know, but I’m optimistic about the outcome because for Kathy Rice to not find in favor of vacating the conviction, I can’t even imagine the types of contortion she’d have to do with the truth in order to justify it.
You mentioned the evidence that’s come to light in the past 10 years. One of the biggest recent pieces of new evidence was your high school friend Ross Goldstein coming forward to say his testimony against you 25 years ago was false. Have you spoken to Ross since you were both indicted?
Friedman: I certainly tried to be in touch with Ross a number of times over the years, and I never knew if any of that communication was successful or not because I never heard back from him. But prior to 2001, I had to always understand that as far as Ross Goldstein knew, my father and I were child molesters, while he knew that he had nothing to do with any wrongdoing. He had no way of knowing about anything else that didn’t involve him; my father and me were arrested months before Ross’s name got dragged into this, and he saw my father plead guilty. He knew he didn’t do anything wrong, he knew the police were absolutely corrupt, he knew he was being framed.
It’s very easy for me to understand that the same way my lawyer and my mother came to me and said, “It really doesn’t matter what did and didn’t happen, it doesn’t matter that you’re innocent. You cannot possibly consider the possibility of going to trial–you’ll spend the rest of your life in prison,” I’m sure that’s the same thing that Ross’s lawyer and Ross’s mother told him. “How can you–you can’t sit trial as a co-defendant with these admitted child molesters down the block?”
For Ross, it was a long time ago. He had long since moved on with his life; he didn’t want to get involved in any of this all over again. So for the longest time, Ross was kind of silent for understandable reasons.
How did you and Ross know each other?
Friedman: He was a year behind me in high school, and the last time I saw him would have been when I graduated from high school. That would have been the last time I had any contact from him. We were friends because he happens to be a magnificent guitar player. He was a fantastic guitar player in high school, and I’m sure today he’s even more so, and while I was in high school, one of the teachers there got funding to build an 8-track recording studio at the school, which I was very much involved with putting that together. Ross is a magnificent guitar player, and we spent a lot of time together in the recording studio, and that was basically how we became friendly. We were never best friends, but it was a small small school, and it was mostly the recording studio that was the majority of our time spent together.
My shock and surprise when he was arrested is unmeasurable. When they arrested Ross, and that made absolutely no sense to me. How they could have placed him at the scene of the crime, or how they could have gotten a witness to identify him seemed implausible. That whole aspect of the case is out of the Twilight Zone to me. The police weren’t really looking for actual suspects. They were never investigating an actual crime. It still doesn’t really make any sense, except for the fact that they weren’t looking for real suspects, they were looking for someone to testify against me. That’s what they were looking for. They were looking for a patsy.
So like I said, I tried many times to reach out to him, and he always eluded me. And I guess it was probably about a year ago, I sent an email, and I didn’t get a reply from the email, and I called him. And he picked up the phone. I said, “It’s Jesse Friedman,” and he didn’t hang up on me. We talked for a little bit, and I said, “We should talk about stuff. We have this shared experience, you know?”
We got together: We met at a diner in Astoria; he brought his girlfriend along, Elisabeth came along. We talked for hours at the diner, we had a good talk. We didn’t talk about everything, but I think I was able to give Ross an opportunity to ask me some things. I’d rather not get into too many specifics, because Ross has his own story to tell. A lot of it was very innocuous stuff. And I don’t think it was really so much what my answers were, it was just very obvious to him about who I was, where I was coming from, that I wasn’t trying to get rich and famous, I wasn’t trying to force him into some position where I needed him to say this, or I needed him to play some role to play and he was obligated to come forward and exonerate me. I went to him and just said, “We should just talk. I mean, shouldn’t we just talk?” And I think it had quite an effect on him because I didn’t come with any agenda to the dinner.
What do you think about the young students–now adults–who testified against you in the grand jury?
Friedman: That’s extremely complicated. I’ve never held any grudge or animosity toward them personally. It’s always been very obvious to me that they were incredibly young and it was the police and the therapists who were basically being abusive towards nine-, 10-year-old kids, in some instances outright brainwashing them, in other instances convincing them that they were sexually abused when they weren’t. I don’t think any of those kids set out to intentionally tell lies about me and send me to prison, and the more conversations that have been had over the years with more of the complainants, it’s becoming even more obvious that it’s not so much that they have necessarily gone through the last 25 years with a sense of feeling like they lied to the police and sent an innocent man to prison.
I’ve never been shy about a position that says “I am not afraid of any of the complainants or anybody from the computer classes coming forward and talking about what they remember from the computer classes.” I know that nobody was sexually abused in the computer classes. My position is, I am not afraid of somebody coming forward at all. Because they’re either going to come forward and tell the truth that nothing happened, or they’re going to come forward and they’re going to say what so many other people said: “Look, I don’t know what I did or didn’t say when I was a kid, but that’s not what happened, that’s not what I remember, I was never raped or sodomized,” or they might come forward with stories as absolutely ridiculous and implausible as Gregory Doe’s. I’ve never been afraid of a credible accusation against me because there’s never been a credible accusation against me. But I have really always felt very badly for what most particularly the complainants were put through by the police and the therapists.
When I was in prison, my hope always hung on the idea that, give it five or 10 years; once they get to college, once they’re actual adults, once they’re old enough to no longer be living at home with their parents in Great Neck, they will come forward and admit that they lied. When [journalist] Debbie Nathan came to visit me, she told me that most of the complainants in the McMartin case [a similar sex-ring hysteria case in Texas] publicly affirm that they were raped and abused in the McMartin preschool. Whereas that case has been thoroughly, completely vetted beyond all doubt that nothing happened. And yet the kids involved believe that they were abused. She said, “You really can’t hang your hopes on the idea that the kids know that they lied and that nothing happened. Because they might very well think that something happened.” That was horrifying for me. And it’s still kind of horrifying for me to think that any of those kids still believe that they were sexually abused. Because I know it didn’t happen.
Between the hypnosis and the therapy and the pressure from parents and police and prosecutors, I guess it’s not surprising that some of the children eventually said what they thought people wanted to hear.
Friedman: When adults start to tell you that your own memories aren’t what you think they are, you start to lose touch with what is a real memory and what isn’t. And it’s really sad. I think it’s really sad. Ever since Capturing the Friedmans came out I’ve been trying to offer this olive branch of truth whenever I had the opportunity to do so: “While I know that some of you have grown up believing that you were sexually abused, I know it’s not true, and there’s healing. There’s an opportunity for healing here.” This isn’t just about me. This isn’t at all just about me. And it’s not even just about me and the complainants. But it’s their parents, and all of the guilt that they had to deal with, that they thought they sent their children off into harm’s way and didn’t protect them. The hundreds of people who were in the computer classes and didn’t become complainants, and they don’t know what did and didn’t happen. The police hurt so many people and traumatized the entire community, and a lot of times I sort of feel like I’m like the last standing eyewitness to a horrible massacre. I’m the only one who survived who can tell the tale.
You have a remarkable amount of compassion for other people in this situation, given what you’ve been through. Does that extend to the police as well?
Friedman: The compassion does not extend to the police. Well, there is an argument to be said: Did the police set out to arrest innocent people and send them to prison? The police thought they were doing their job. They were doing their job the way they were trained to do their job. They were trained real poorly. They were trained that when a child says nothing happened, that that was the wrong answer and you have to keep talking to the child as long as it takes until they give the right answer. Not the truthful answer, the right answer.
The police were horribly poorly trained. They were bring given instructions by therapists whose belief was if a child says that they weren’t sexually abused, then that means that they were horribly traumatized and don’t remember being sexually abused. So basically, you walk into a house, and there’s no walking out without the detective thinking that the child was abused. If the child says, “I was sexually abused,” they walk out, chalk it up, good interview, child was sexually abused. If they child says they weren’t sexually abused, they chalk it up to “Child was more horribly abused than the last person we talked to, got to talk to him again, got to send him to therapy.”
Your case was only one of many sex-abuse hysteria cases in the ’80s and ’90s. Have you been in touch with any of the other people convicted in those cases?
Friedman: It’s this sort of rather unfortunate exclusive club that we belong to. It’s such a horrible, horrible experience, and nobody really wants to talk about it, to bond over it. I kind of feel like we should all get together twice a year and have our own wrongfully-convicted-of-sex-abuse anonymous group. Because who else knows really what we’ve all been through? But try as I might, I was never able to get a meeting together.
One thing I learned about imprisonment is everybody’s sentence feels like the longest sentence they could ever imagine. The guy doing three years, those three years for him are absolutely the worst three years imaginable. The guy doing 25 years looks at the dude doing three years and says, “I could do that locked in my cell. I have spent three years in solitary confinement. I can’t believe you’re complaining.”
So it’s a very personal, individual experience. Some people were separated from their spouses. A lot of people were separated from their children. It doesn’t matter what they were accused of or how much money their lawyers stole from them, or how many years they spent in prison. For them, it’s all about how many years they weren’t able to watch their children grow up, that’s it. I don’t share that experience at all. As much as we share the same experience of being falsely accused of child molestation, that’s a whole separate experience from what I have been through. So it’s very personal type of horror to have to go through. It’s never really communalized. It’s unfortunate, because it’s made dealing with the trauma much more difficult.
Do you think you’ll ever close the book on this episode?
Friedman: I have no idea. I’m pretty certain that we’re going to finish one chapter and start new ones. I don’t see an ending anywhere in the foreseeable future. But it will be nice to wrap up–with TV shows with multiple characters and they all have a lot going on–it will be nice to wrap up some of these storylines and start some new ones. It will be nice to formally establish my innocence and then have more time and energy to focus on some other things. I can’t even guess for you what I may or may not be doing two years from now. I don’t know. Right now I spend all of my energy working incredibly hard just to keep my family financially solvent, and working full-time constantly on the appeal and the case and the investigation, and that’s two full-time jobs. If I could eliminate one of them, I would have so much energy to do other things, and I don’t even know what they might be. It could be almost anything.
Walsh: Jesse doesn’t have any sense of what liberty feels like. He was barely out of high school when this happened. So he went from being a child in his parents’ home to spending his 20s and early 30s in a prison cell where there’s no civil liberties of any kind, five years on parole, with an ankle bracelet and no civil liberties and constant fear of a ridiculous situation, and then under oppressive Megan’s Law as a Level III sex offender.
He hasn’t a clue what civil liberties feel like, what it feels like to decide what you want to do for a living, where you want to live, whether you want to be a parent, decide whether you can go to a sporting event or not. He has no sense of that. He has never experienced freedom. He and I have talked about this quite a bit: He doesn’t know what he’s going to feel.
Friedman: I don’t think there’s going to be an actual finished-over-done. I’ve been Jesse Friedman of Capturing the Friedmans for a really long time. Sometimes that’s been a blessing, sometimes that’s been a burden, but it would be wonderful to find a way to make that into something positive. I don’t think I’m going to law school, but fighting wrongful convictions happens to be the one thing I have a tremendous amount of experience at. Maybe I’m going to find myself working at overturning wrongful convictions. I have no idea. I might find myself living in the desert with the nearest neighbor 50 miles away. It could be somewhere in between. I don’t know. I don’t have the energy to guess, and I also don’t have the freedom or the liberty to make plans. I’m in a constant state of limbo with my life. It’s trauma-making. It’s manifested itself in absolute trauma and anxiety and panic attacks and all sorts of other terrible things that I’ve been working on healing from for years now.
What can you say about that trauma?
Friedman: This is what I can tell you: Obviously my incarceration was a horrible experience, and it went on forever. I didn’t think I was ever going to be released from prison. I thought I was going to be civilly committed, and that’s a whole other political conversation about the civil commitment of sex offenders which I’m not going to get into. But I was denied parole four times, and I did not believe I was going to get released ever, and when I was released, it was the most difficult experience of my life. I had almost no support system in place at all, I was very much alone, and I was under a horrendous oppressive parole situation. It was terrifying. It was absolutely terrifying. I was still being sent to sex offender therapy three times a week. But I put a tremendous amount of expectation on when my parole finally ended. I had this utopian idea that finally my life was going to be restored and made whole. And to my horror, it was everything but. In the year or two after my parole ended, I turned into an emotional animal of trauma and anger and panic and I had no idea why or where it was coming from or what was wrong with me. We went to therapist after therapist after therapist. I sought out help anywhere. At a certain point, I was quite near death. I certainly was at an emotional death. My marriage was falling apart, and I couldn’t stop it.
I Googled “PTSD clinical trials,” and got a whole long list of all these government-funded free PTSD clinical trial programs. There was one that was in Boston that was focused primarily on veterans, but you didn’t have to be a veteran in order to qualify. When the person running the program called me the first time, she asked me a bunch of questions and she basically said, “You really should come in right away.” It absolutely saved my life. It certainly saved our marriage. The treatment was extremely successful, but it’s still a process. Yesterday was a really bad day. I didn’t leave the house at all. I got up and ended up back in bed, then got up and ended up back in bed a second time. They’re not all that bad, but this nonsense with the D.A.’s office–every two weeks now they’re like, “Well, we should be done in another two weeks,” and then in two weeks they’re like, “Well, probably another two weeks,” and two weeks go by: “Well, another two weeks.”
Walsh: It’s a torture situation. He’s holding his breath every time they say “Eight more days,” I’m holding my breath every time they say “Eight more days.” So it gets to the point where you just say, “Can I breathe for a minute?”
Do you expect that the District Attorney’s ruling will spark some sort of healing or truth-and-reconciliation process for the community of Great Neck when it comes out?
Friedman: Truth is always more comforting. Because even if we don’t realize it, we know in our souls what’s truth and what isn’t. We all sort of knew that Saddam Hussein wasn’t harboring weapons of mass destruction. We believed the lie, but when the truth finally came out, we were all like, “Well, yeah, that makes a lot more sense.” It’s good to know that that was the truth.
I think the healing is really going to have to come on an individual basis, because it’s a personal choice to look at the evidence, to think about what your personal experience was, and to be able to realize that well maybe it’s a little different than I thought it has always been. I think that everyone who had a shift in belief feels much better about the alternate universe version. But I’m wise enough to know that there certainly will be people who will look at a decision from [Nassau County D.A.] Cathy Rice and think that I beat the case on a technicality. They’re still going to believe whatever they want to believe. It’s ludicrous to think that I’m winning anything. They’ve already stolen 25 years of my life, so I don’t know what anyone thinks I’m actually going to win, except maybe an apology. And I’m not quite certain I’m going to get that.
This is about changing the world for the better for the future. It’s not about me. The people who are going to read your article might one day sit on a jury. They might sit there and listen to the prosecutor talk about what a horrible criminal that man sitting over there is, and maybe they’ll have this moment where they’ll stop, and they’ll think about that article that they read in the Village Voice, and they’ll think, “Maybe the district attorney doesn’t have the whole story. Maybe I should be a little more open-minded and realize that just because the police say something happened doesn’t mean the police really have the whole story.” I keep fighting this because I think Americans are horrendously ignorant of the judicial process.
When we really win this thing, it will hopefully inspire a lot more people. It will become a lesson for new detectives, for people in law school. This case will become part of law school curriculum, and that’s the only protection. The only protection for a good judicial system in the future are the people who are in law school today. That’s where a lot of my hope lies, that it’s making a difference somewhere, somehow, in ways I don’t even know.