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NY top court gives Jesse Friedman partial victory

Court of Appeals reverses a lower-court decision that blocked access to evidence gathered from witnesses who didn’t testify in his trial.

Jesse Friedman attends a hearing at State Appeals

Jesse Friedman attends a hearing at State Appeals Court in Brooklyn in February 2015. Photo Credit: Linda Rosier

ALBANY

ALBANY — Convicted child molester Jesse Friedman won a partial victory in connection with his effort to prove his innocence decades after pleading guilty when New York’s top court Tuesday rejected Nassau prosecutors’ bid to keep parts of his case file sealed.

The state Court of Appeals reversed a decision by a midlevel court, saying the appellate court erred in 2015 when it found that Friedman couldn’t have access to evidence gathered from witnesses who didn’t testify in the 1980s Great Neck sex scandal.

Friedman requested case documents in 2012 under the Freedom of Information Law, and then sued after his request was denied — seeking his entire case file and grand jury minutes.

In 2013, a Nassau Supreme Court justice ruled the district attorney’s office had to release “every piece of paper” in Friedman’s file to him. That included grand jury minutes, but not the names of three witnesses who asked for confidentiality.

However, Tuesday’s reversal by the Court of Appeals doesn’t give Friedman immediate access to his file.

Rather, the court sent the case back to Supreme Court to determine whether some witnesses expressly were guaranteed confidentiality by prosecutors — or the circumstances of the case are such that confidentiality “can be reasonably inferred” — and their identifying information and statements can therefore be kept secret.

“There is no basis to assume that every person who communicates with law enforcement in the course of a criminal investigation expects that their name and each and every statement they make will be held in confidence,” the decision said in part.

Friedman’s Manhattan attorney, Ronald Kuby, called the decision “an emphatic triumph for the principles of open government” and the wrongfully convicted, who he said “will have a far easier task obtaining essential documents.”

His statement also called the ruling “a stinging rebuke to successive Nassau County district attorneys, who first created a moral panic over nonexistent sex abuse allegations and then tried to create a moral panic as to the consequences of releasing the documents that demonstrate prosecutorial misconduct.”

Friedman, 48, of Bridgeport, Connecticut, went to prison after pleading guilty in 1988 to sexually abusing boys who took computer classes in his family’s home. His father, Arnold, also pleaded guilty and committed suicide in prison.

After his release, Friedman said he pleaded guilty to avoid life in prison and contended police steered children into making false statements. The 2003 Academy Award-nominated documentary “Capturing the Friedmans” raised questions about techniques detectives used to question child witnesses.

In 2010, a federal court denied Friedman’s bid to have his conviction overturned, but said evidence suggested a likelihood he was wrongfully convicted. A review by then-Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice’s office found in 2013 that Friedman’s conviction was justified.

In 2014, a Nassau judge granted Friedman a hearing so he could try to prove his innocence — a proceeding that has been on hold as the records issue remained pending.

Nassau District Attorney Madeline Singas’ office released a statement Tuesday asking New York lawmakers to pass a bill prosecutors said would protect the records of sex crime victims. The statement also said “making victims’ statements presumptively public records will deter victims’ cooperation with law enforcement” and pointed out Friedman had pleaded guilty and a review found that conviction to be just.

“Public disclosure of child sex crime victims’ statements will humiliate and retraumatize vulnerable kids, and these sensitive records should not be available to convicted sex offenders, the media, or anyone else,” the statement added.

Friedman said in a statement that the court’s decision enables him “to seek the evidence in those files which I know will help prove my innocence.”

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