Arnold Friedman was a quirky nuclear physics teacher who wrote something odd in my high school yearbook: Perry - I would like to meet your 3-eyed kids, but don't blame me! (a seeming poke at the irradiated material we handled in his college-level class, and the resulting mutations) He was a funny, inspirational, award winning teacher whose teaching techniques I model in my college classroom. In 1986, students organized a retirement party and recalled that he was "unforgettable" and "he turned my life around."
In 1987, Mr. Friedman and his seventeen year old son Jesse were arrested and accused of molesting over a dozen young children in their home basement, where the retired teacher opened a computer school for kids. The Great Neck, New York community was understandably panicked, as Arnold and Jesse Friedman accepted separate plea deals.
I wrote about Mr. Friedman in my book, Unlocking Your Rubber Room, in a lesson entitled "Know the consequences of regret:"
As the years went by, my thoughts about Mr. Friedman ranged between "How on earth could you do this?" to "As sick a person as you are, you were still a great teacher." These emotions were in constant conflict. I found out that he was imprisoned at the Federal Correctional Institution in Oxford, Wisconsin. Several times, I tried to write him a letter, but could not figure out what to say. After a while, I just tried to put this terrible person out of my mind. Mr. Friedman died alone in his prison cell, divorced by his wife, ridiculed by the public, and shunned in the teaching profession.
Capturing the Friedmans, a 2003 Oscar nominated documentary examined the evidence against the Friedmans and convincingly questioned whether any of the allegations against Mr. Friedman and his son were truthful. I walked out of the theater with regrets that I never wrote that letter.
Jesse was paroled in 2001 and is a registered sex offender for life; in fact, his photograph and home, work, and college addresses are viewable on the internet for all to see. With an assist from the intrigue generated by Capturing the Friedmans, Jesse has attempted to clear his name by seeking a new trial. On August 16, 2010, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit found "a reasonable likelihood that Jesse Friedman was wrongfully convicted" and that "the police, prosecutors and the [trial] judge did everything they could to coerce a guilty plea and avoid a trial." But like a Twilight Zone nightmare, the appellate court denied a new trial, citing that Jesse missed the deadline for such a request.
The court system needs rules to provide predictability in the law. But when the rules fly in the face of reason, there are times when substance needs to be elevated over form. This is one of those times. Luckily, the Second Circuit judges strongly urged the district attorney's office to open the case and re-examine the evidence against Jesse.
The lessons of compassion, empathy, and justice were taught to me by a handful of New York City teachers, not by a law book. Mr. Friedman was one of these teachers. But Capturing the Friedmans showed me that Arnold Friedman was not the person I thought he was. While he maintained his innocence in this case, the documentary points out that years earlier, he twice engaged in inappropriate behavior with young boys. And those crimes cannot be forgiven. When put in this context, his cryptic yearbook reference of "3-eyed kids" is creepy at best and scary at worst.
Intellectually, I know you cannot separate the person from the teacher. For me, it is contradictory and maddening that this person provided meaningful guidance to countless students.
I don't know if Jesse is innocent, but I do believe he was pressured into accepting a plea deal and his guilt cannot be proven "beyond a reasonable doubt." At the moment, his status as a sex offender is in the hands of prosecutors, who hopefully can apply Arnold Friedman's classroom lessons of compassion, rather than implicate Jesse by default for his father's sins.
I'll probably take some heat for this blog post from people personally involved in this case. But justice for Jesse is long overdue, and I have no regrets about that pursuit.
Court documents in this case can be found on Jesse Friedman's website, FreeJesse.net.