Releasing the Friedmans From the Grip of Shame

Thanks in part to a documentary filmmaker, a report due this week could exonerate a New York Jewish man who 20 years ago was convicted of pedophilia along with his father.

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When I interviewed filmmaker Andrew Jarecki ten years ago about his disturbing documentary, “Capturing the Friedmans,” I had one big question for him: Did he think they did it?

Did he really believe Arnold and Jesse Friedman, a father and son from Long Island, New York, were guilty of the 54 counts of child abuse they were convicted of in 1987?

After all, his film – which was nominated for an Oscar for best documentary featurein 2003 – never really took a stance. Interspersing present-day interviews with the Friedmans’ own Super-8-film home videos, it chronicles how the life of this upper-middle class traditional Jewish family (we see Hanukkah and Passover along the way) was shattered after customs agents found some 20 child pornography magazines in Arnold’s house in Great Neck. Jarecki interviewed prosecutors, police, judges, neighbors, and some of the 17 boys who testified against Arnold and his youngest son Jesse (then 19), accusing them of sodomy during an after-school computer course in the home.

But the film doubles back on itself. After presenting what seems like ironclad testimony, it begins to present the other side – the holes, the inconsistencies; until by the end, the viewer is unsure what to think. This despite the fact that Arnold pled guilty to the charges in exchange for a sentence of 10 to 30 years; and Jesse, after his friend Ross Goldstein – who was also on trial – testified against him, pled guilty to molesting 14 boys in exchange for a commuted sentence. Arnold committed suicide in prison in 1995. Jesse served 13 years and was released in 2001.

When I asked Jarecki about the Friedman’s guilt back then, he wouldn’t say what he believed.

“I try not to behave [as] if I were there,” he told me, dodging the question. “I think the issue is so much more complicated than the case, because there were two people involved: Arnold and his son. Some people say, ‘I don't know if I believe them. I don’t know if they’re guilty or innocent.’”

Thanks to the home videos, he said, “The audience becomes a primary source – you get a chance to decide for yourself.”

But Jarecki has since changed his tune. Having continued his investigation over the past decade, he has moved from an objective stance to believing that Jesse – now 44 and a Level 3 violent sex offender who is restricted in where he can live – is innocent.

“As the filmmaker, I have felt a responsibility to try to set the record straight on what really happened in this case,” Jarecki wrote in The Huffington Post on April 26.

In 2010, a federal appeals court affirmed there was “a reasonable likelihood Jesse Friedman was wrongfully convicted,” categorizing the evidence as “extraordinarily suspect,” although it could not overturn the case because the appeal came too late. The court directed Kathleen M. Rice, the district attorney in Long Island’s Nassau County, to determine whether the conviction should be upheld. She is due to give a report by June 28.

Last month, Ross Goldstein (Jesse’s friend who testified against him) wrote a letter to the district attorney’s office recanting his damning testimony against both father and son and accusing police of harassing him into giving it. A number of other key witnesses – who were 8 to 10 years old at the time – have also retracted their statements.

“As God is my witness and on my children's lives, I was never raped or sodomized, and I never saw a kid sodomized or molested. And if I said it, it was not because it happened; it was because someone else put those words in my mouth,” one supposed victim who is now a physician in his 30s, told Jarecki.

Jarecki squarely blames police, therapists, the judge and the then-district attorney for not only ruining Jesse’s life, but also the lives of “hundreds of Long Island kids and their families [who] grew up with the stigma of believing they were victims of violent sexual abuse they mysteriously couldn't actually remember.”

What he doesn’t do is blame himself. The ambiguity of the film reflected what he knew at the time, he told The New York Times on June 15.

Kudos to Jarecki for fighting for justice. In addition to presenting the district attorney with 1,700 pages of material, including witness testimony, he started a petition asking her to overturn Jesse’s conviction. If he is successful, Jesse will be able to live without the stigma of being a sex-offender, and dozens of others will be able to put to rest their knowledge of having testified against him.

But the whole affair raises disturbing questions. What exactly is a filmmakers’ responsibility? What is a journalist’s responsibility? Arnold Friedman is dead. Jesse has already served his time. Jarecki is not responsible for these things, but his film certainly did not help the Friedmans' cause. Perhaps his continued fight will make amends.

Jesse Friedman in 2004.Credit: AP
Andrew Jarecki in 2004.Credit: AP

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