DA: Jesse Friedman justifiably convicted of child sex abuse

Jesse Friedman and his wife, Lisabeth, hold a news conference at the courthouse in Mineola after Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice released the results of a three-year review of his 1988 sex abuse case. (June 24, 2013)

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Jesse Friedman, who gained national notoriety after being found guilty of the sexual abuse of 13 boys taking computer classes at his father's Great Neck home, was rightly convicted in 1988, Nassau prosecutors said in a report released Monday.

The finding comes despite a nearly 10-year campaign to clear Friedman's name, fueled in part by filmmakers who made an award-winning documentary about the case.

The 155-page document released Monday morning details a comprehensive three-year review by Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice. It concludes that the original investigation was sound overall, despite allegations raised in the 2003 documentary "Capturing the Friedmans" that Friedman was railroaded by a law enforcement community swept up in an atmosphere of what it called hysteria over child sex abuse allegations at the time.

Issues raised in the film were a major reason a federal appeals court, three years ago, had urged Rice to reexamine the case.

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'Exhaustive' process"We were fully prepared to exonerate Mr. Friedman if that's where the facts led us. But . . . this exhaustive and impartial process has only strengthened the justice system's confidence that Jesse Friedman was involved in the sexual abuse of children," Rice said in a statement.

Notably, the report says that there is no evidence that improper police questioning tainted the investigation, that hypnosis was used on the children, that Friedman's guilty plea was coerced, or that the community was influenced by the "moral panic" of the time -- all allegations made by Friedman and his defenders.

But Jesse Friedman, 44, said he will not give up his efforts to clear his name. "It's painful when people lie about you, and it's really painful when the DA lies about you," he said. "But I'm standing strong, and I have more fight in me than I've ever had."

Charges brought in 1987The case first made headlines in 1987 when Jesse Friedman, then 18, and his father, Arnold, then 56, were charged with abusing several children attending a computer school in their home.

Police said children ages 8 to 15 who had been in Friedman's classes told them stories of being shown pornographic magazines and video games. Later, Jesse and Arnold Friedman molested and sodomized the children, and forced them to perform sex acts on them and one another, police said. The boys, now in their 30s, say they were terrorized into silence when Jesse Friedman threatened them, saying to some he would kill their parents and burn down their homes, police said.

Jesse Friedman pleaded guilty in 1988 to charges that included sodomy, sexual abuse and endangering the welfare of a minor. He was sentenced to 6 to 18 years in prison and was paroled in 2001. His father pleaded guilty to 42 counts of sexual abuse and died of an apparent suicide in prison in 1995.

Rice's report cites several new pieces of evidence problematic for Friedman including:

Three students who were not part of the original case gave sworn statements at the time saying Jesse Friedman sexually abused and sodomized them.

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Friedman was punished in prison for possessing a photograph of a naked prepubescent girl, and separately for writing and distributing stories about incest, child rape and bestiality.

Arnold Friedman's brother, Howard Friedman, said to Rice's prosecutors that Arnold had told him that both Arnold and Jesse were guilty.

Jesse Friedman failed two lie detector tests paid for by his original defense team, and a psychiatrist hired by his lawyer found him to be a "psychopathic deviant" who was capable of committing the crimes with which he was charged.

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Recantations reviewedIn recent months, Friedman and his supporters had come forward with what they called new evidence in the case, including several students who said that, although they gave grand jury testimony against Friedman saying so, they were never abused. Rice said in her report that those recantations to Friedman supporters were not credible, or were taken out of context.

Friedman's lawyer, Ron Kuby of Manhattan, said he is not surprised the report supported Friedman's conviction.

"It is disappointing but not surprising that DA Rice is unwilling and unable to fairly assess the misdeed of her predecessors, as well as her own shabby role in the Friedman case," he said.

The report was signed off by an independent advisory panel, including Innocence Project founder Barry Scheck. The panel wrote a letter vouching for the thoroughness and integrity of Rice's inquiry, saying that they believe in her conclusions.

"After painstaking efforts and discussions that consumed many hundreds of hours, the review team reached the judgments that Jesse Friedman pleaded guilty because in fact he was guilty and that the circumstances do not warrant relief," the letter states.

Retired Det. Sgt. Fran Galasso, who headed the original investigation for Nassau police said she was pleased to hear her work had been validated.

"I'm happy for the victims. I hope they can finally get some closure in this drawn-out case," she said. "I'm also happy for the people who worked in my squad, because I know what kind of a job they did, and I know what the truth is."

The Long Island mother of one victim expressed relief at the findings, but asked that her name be kept anonymous to protect her son's identity.

"I hope this is the end of it," she said. "Our feeling is one of outrage that we still have to deal with this and bring this up and of having to relive it 27 years later . . . I do consider what has been going on a harassment of the victims."

Film spotlight caseIt was "Capturing the Friedmans," a 2003 documentary by filmmakers Andrew Jarecki and Marc Smerling, that brought the case back to national attention.

The film, which was nominated for an Oscar, raised questions about tactics used by investigators to interview children and possible bias of the judge on Jesse Friedman's case. The film suggested the judge may have coerced his guilty plea.

Three years ago in August, a federal appeals court urged Nassau prosecutors to take a second look at the case. The decision ultimately denied Friedman's bid to have his conviction overturned, saying he missed a filing deadline, but added that evidence in the case suggests "a reasonable likelihood" that Friedman was wrongfully convicted.

Rice's report acknowledges some weaknesses in the investigation, such as poor note-taking by police that made it difficult to reconstruct some facts 25 years later, and some accounts that aggressive interviewing techniques may have been used on children in the latter part of the case. But the report, and the letter from the advisory panel, also point out ways in which it says the film -- which the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals relied on heavily on its decision asking Rice to look back at the case -- takes some witness accounts out of context, and omits key details about what happened.

" 'Capturing the Friedmans' was a provocative and entertaining movie," says the advisory panel's letter. "But it was not an exhaustive account of the entire case against Jesse Friedman."

Jarecki said it was Rice's report, and not his film, that twisted the facts of the case.

The report stresses evidence that most interviews done by police officers early in the case were low-pressure and open-ended, and that the accounts kids gave at that time were detailed, credible and corroborated. It found that, contrary to Jarecki's assertions, no child was hypnotized before testifying in the grand jury or influenced by group therapy sessions.

The report finds the judge, Abbey Boklan, who died last year, was not biased against Friedman and did not coerce his plea. Boklan's widower, Peter Sutton, said the review affirms his wife's integrity and that of others in the justice system. "This is just vindication of all the work and the ethics that these people displayed," said Sutton, of Roslyn. "Abbey told me something a long, long time ago, 'The truth needs no defense' . . . and she was right."

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