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New doubts raised in 'Capturing the Friedmans' child-sex case

Jesse Friedman sits in his lawyer's office in

Jesse Friedman sits in his lawyer's office in New York, where he was helping to prepare a motion to overturn his 1988 conviction on child sex abuse charges. (Jan. 7, 2004) Credit: AP

The makers of "Capturing the Friedmans," an award-winning documentary about a notorious Long Island sex abuse case, have presented the panel of experts reviewing Jesse Friedman's conviction with evidence that they say casts new doubts on his guilt.

Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice is re-examining Friedman's 1988 conviction. The filmmakers, Andrew Jarecki, 49, of Manhattan, and Marc Smerling, 49, of Brooklyn, say they have interviewed several of Friedman's alleged victims on video, four of whom now say they were never abused.

"I'll tell you, I never said I was sodomized. I was never raped or molested . . ." a man named in Friedman's indictment said in a video interview shown to Newsday. "If I said it, it was not because it happened, it was because someone else put those words in my mouth."

The man is not named in the video except by the alias used in the original indictment, and his face is not shown. Jarecki and Smerling say more than 10 charges, including sodomy, sexual abuse and endangering the welfare of a minor were based on that man's testimony.

Friedman, now 43, and his father, Arnold, pleaded guilty in 1988 to sexually abusing more than a dozen young boys who took computer classes in the basement of their Great Neck home. Arnold Friedman was 64 when he killed himself in prison in 1995. Jesse Friedman served 13 years and was paroled in 2001. He is still registered as a Level 3 sex offender.


Recanted his story

Despite his guilty plea in court and subsequent media interviews from prison in which he described molesting boys, the younger Friedman then recanted and claimed innocence.

"Those crimes never happened," Friedman told Newsday. Friedman, who was 17 when arrested, is now married and living in Bridgeport, Conn. He runs a small Internet book-selling business with his wife, he said.

Meanwhile, the lead detective from the original case is just as vehement in her belief that Friedman was guilty and that her investigation was sound.

"No one was ever forced to do or say anything," Frances Galasso told Newsday. "No child was ever interviewed without the permission of a parent." Galasso, who is now retired, said she has been interviewed at some length by Rice's staff.

Rice agreed to revisit the conviction in August 2010 after the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision that denied Friedman's bid to withdraw his guilty plea, but criticized the handling of the case.

The judges cited "overzealousness" by law enforcement officials in the late 1980s and early 1990s when a "vast moral panic" over nationally publicized allegations of bizarre child sex abuse "fueled a series of highly-questionable" prosecutions.

The court said Friedman was probably pressured into pleading guilty to a crime he may not have committed.

Rice appointed four outside law enforcement experts to oversee the new investigation.

Neither Rice's office nor panel members would comment on the evidence presented by Jarecki and Smerling. "This is an ongoing review by a distinguished panel of independent experts and we will not comment until it is complete," said John Byrne, a spokesman for Rice. Salvatore Marinello, a Mineola lawyer hired a few years ago by four students whom Friedman pleaded guilty to molesting, said his clients' accounts of suffering abuse had not been coerced. He said he has not spoken to them in recent months, but has no reason to believe their recollections had changed.

The filmmakers said they spoke to five of the original 14 students who accused Jesse Friedman. Four of them have recanted, Jarecki said. The fifth said he was hypnotized by therapists working on the case, and had not recalled abuse until then.

Galasso denies hypnosis was used.


Others not harmed

Jarecki said he and Smerling have spoken to seven other computer students from the classes where group rapes were alleged. All said they were never molested and saw no one else abused.

Jarecki said while some of the material he gave to Rice's panel and prosecutors was included in his documentary, more than half of it is new.

"Capturing the Friedmans" was nominated for an Oscar and won the Sundance Film Festival's grand jury prize in January 2003.

It raises many of the issues that Jarecki and Smerling cite now, including students recanting testimony and a detective saying he had asked leading questions.

Some local law enforcement officials and victims in the case came forward to criticize the film then, saying it manipulated crucial facts and left others out entirely.

"The film opened up the gateway of controversy," Smerling said, "and now we're the people with access to the information."

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