A decade ago, my film Capturing the Friedmans ignited controversy by questioning allegations that terrible crimes were committed in the late 1980s by Arnold Friedman and his teenage son Jesse in after-school computer classes held in their Long Island home. Viewers of the film reacted passionately, and due to their help, everyone involved in this once-settled case -- which included several wrongful convictions for sexual abuse -- may finally be on the precipice of achieving justice and closure.
Now we need one more push to help move it over the edge.
Back in the late '80s, the community was in an uproar, convinced by police that a trusted teacher had for years been orchestrating gothic tableaus of sexual abuse such as games in which police said hundreds of children had been sodomized by adults "leaping" from one naked child to the next. While the charges sound absurd today, at the time a national hysteria of false sex abuse accusations (epitomized by the famous McMartin Pre-school case) was in full swing, and Jesse, his father, and a teenage friend of Jesse's were led to plead guilty and go to prison for decades (Arnold died there).
We addressed the controversy head on by premiering the film (and its revelations of an investigation run amok) in Great Neck -- the wealthy suburb where the crimes were alleged to have occurred -- and inviting the whole community. When the lights came up, tempers flared, with supporters calling for Jesse's exoneration -- and members of the police force and even the judge making impassioned speeches about Jesse's guilt. The crowd stayed long after the screening, and the debate was ultimately broken off by ushers coming in to sweep popcorn out of the aisles. The debate continued in theaters across the country.
As the filmmaker, I have felt a responsibility to try to set the record straight on what really happened in this case And today, these efforts are particularly important, as the case has been re-opened for a new review by a new District Attorney -- who is said to be making her determination within days. The review comes after a landmark ruling by the Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals stated in 2010 that there was "a reasonable likelihood Jesse Friedman was wrongfully convicted" and described the evidence in the case as "extraordinarily suspect." The current DA, Kathleen Rice, has empaneled a committee including Barry Scheck, director of the Innocence Project, to "help ensure transparency and impartiality," though she retained sole discretion over the outcome.
Since that time, my team and I have redoubled our efforts to pursue evidence, talking to dozens of new witnesses who overwhelmingly endorsed the view that Jesse had been wrongfully convicted. In the words of one witness, then an 8 year-old boy, and today a successful physician in his 30s, "As God is my witness and on my children's lives, I was never raped or sodomized, and I never saw a kid sodomized or molested. And if I said it, it was not because it happened, it was because someone else put those words in my mouth."
We have provided the DA with over 1,700 pages of materials including full transcripts of dozens of interviews with key witnesses whose testimony was otherwise unavailable. Now, a quarter century after the wrongful conviction, and as we enter the third year of DA Rice's review, the sorrowful legacy of the Friedman case endures: Jesse Friedman and his wife live with the burden of his being designated a Level III Violent Sexual Predator, unable to live or worship where they want, and tragically prevented from having a child of their own, due to the overwhelming impediments of living under Megan's Law.
Beyond this, hundreds of Long Island kids and their families grew up with the stigma of believing they were victims of violent sexual abuse they mysteriously couldn't actually remember. While Jesse spent 13 years in prison, these hundreds of children and their families spent those same years (and more) in another kind of prison. They were sent there by the actions and inactions of police officers, therapists, a judge, and a District Attorney.
Today, another District Attorney can set them free.
To view portions of the New Evidence Reel of material we provided to the District Attorney, and to sign the petition we are delivering to the DA's office, please visit www.justiceforjesse.com.
If you are moved by what you see, please forward this to your friends and family.