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Jesse Friedman case puts Rice in spotlight

Jesse Friedman in Mineola. (June 4, 2013)

Jesse Friedman in Mineola. (June 4, 2013) Credit: Howard Schnapp

When Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice releases a report later this month either vacating Jesse Friedman's 1988 child sex abuse conviction or upholding it, the impact will be huge.

Though Friedman's 13-year prison sentence ended in 2001, he says he still lives as a prisoner.

He is a registered Level 3 sex offender, a status that he says has deterred him from having children with his wife, Lisabeth, since it would mean he could never bring his child to school or the playground.

A vacated guilty plea would mean, Friedman said, "breathing when you have not been able to breathe, or walking when you have not been able to walk."

But Friedman is not the only one who has a stake in the case.

Rice, a powerful district attorney who once ran for state attorney general, will likely face praise or criticism whichever way she goes.

For example, critiquing the work done years ago by her office when it was headed by Denis Dillon would not be easy, but standing in the path of the surge of support carrying Friedman these days -- including that of the influential documentary filmmakers who put the case in the national spotlight -- might prove even harder.


'Competing interests'

"In any child sex abuse case there are a number of competing interests," said Kevin Keating, a Garden City defense attorney who won a high-profile acquittal in a 2006 recovered memory sex abuse case. "Here they are swirling in every direction. It is the job of the DA to make sometimes courageous decisions based on the strength of the evidence."

Said Lonnie Soury, a publicist working for Friedman: "If she overturns the conviction, she could be a hero. If she doesn't, there will be an uproar."

Rice said she is not feeling pressure.

"My team and our independent experts have no agenda," she said. "We're career prosecutors and we're used to following facts impartially, regardless of any external noise."

The Friedman case drew national attention 25 years ago, when Jesse Friedman, then 18, and his father Arnold, then 56, were charged with abusing a number of children attending a computer school operated out of their Great Neck home.

Friedman pleaded guilty 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 killed himself in prison in 1995.

But it was "Capturing the Friedmans," a 2003 documentary by filmmakers Andrew Jarecki and Marc Smerling, that brought the case back into the national spotlight.

The film, which was nominated for an Oscar, raised questions about what it called an atmosphere of hysteria over child sex abuse cases at the time, and tactics used by investigators to draw facts out of young children.

Jesse Friedman and his lawyer both now deny that either Friedman or his father ever molested any children.

It was three years ago in August that a federal appeals court urged Nassau prosecutors to take a second look at the high-profile case that was based in part on memories that children recalled in therapy. The 31-page decision ultimately rejected 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."


Filmmakers continue probe

Soon after, Rice announced she would form a committee to re-examine the decades-old child sexual abuse case against Jesse Friedman, saying, "A prosecutor's job is not to obtain convictions but to obtain justice."

Rice appointed a committee of her own assistants to re-examine the case. She then formed a four-member independent panel, including Barry Scheck, founder of the Manhattan-based Innocence Project, to oversee a review.

Rice has said that she will allow the panel to guide her both in her investigation of the case and in its conclusions.

During the three-year investigation, Jarecki and Smerling continued to investigate the case and put pressure on Rice. They say they have interviewed many of the original complainants against Jesse Friedman. Several now say nothing ever happened to them, and several others will not confirm their stories, Soury said.

"We are loaded with evidence and we're going to keep coming," Jarecki said.

Sal Marinello, a Garden City defense lawyer representing several of the original complainants, said he is not aware that any of his clients have rescinded their complaints.

Despite the pressure on Rice coming from the Friedman camp, some defense lawyers say it would still be easier for Rice to leave the can of worms sealed.

"Vacating this conviction may be the most popular decision," said Steven Raiser, president of the Nassau Criminal Courts Bar Association. "However, by doing so she would be left with a . . . a decision of whether or not to move forward on any part of the case that may have been supported by the evidence, as well as dealing with a . . . renewed interest by the public as to what went wrong in the investigation and prosecution of this case," he said.

"We encourage DA Rice to make her determination solely based on the facts of the case without any consideration as to the political difficulties or considerations that may follow her decision," Raiser said.

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