Jesse Friedman spent 13 years in prison for committing horrific sexual crimes against young children, and while he pled guilty at the time, he claims he is actually innocent.Twenty-five years ago, when Friedman was 19, he pled guilty to 25 counts of abuse. The victims who came forward were young boys, generally about 10 years old, who had all attended a computer class run by Friedman's father, Arnold Friedman, at the family's home in Great Neck, N.Y.
Today, at age 44, Jesse Friedman has been out of prison for 12 years, but he is fighting to clear his name. In an interview with "Nightline," Friedman said he never committed those crimes."I never sexually assaulted any child ever," he said. "I never touched a child in an inappropriate way. I never harmed a child. I never molested a child. I never sexually abused a child. I never sodomized a child."
The investigation into the Friedmans began in 1987 when Arnold Friedman was caught ordering a child pornography magazine through the mail. The married father of three later admitted he was sexually attracted to teenage boys, but denied having molested any of the boys in his computer classes.At the time, Arnold Friedman was a well-respected teacher and his computer classes were popular. His son Jesse was his assistant.
By the end of the investigation, more than a dozen boys had come forward, alleging a list of horrific sex crimes, including sexualized games.
Detective Fran Galasso, who was head of the sex crimes unit in Nassau County at the time, said the abuse was just a "free-for-all" and the boys were forced to participate in "mass games" in the classroom.Eight months into the investigation, Ross Goldstein, a teenage friend of Jesse's, who also occasionally helped in the class, was arrested and charged with over 300 sexual crimes against the children.
In addition to the children who testified in front of the grand jury, Goldstein accepted a deal to testify against Jesse and Arnold Friedman in exchange for six months in prison."There were 243 charges against me," Jesse Friedman said. "There was possibly going to be 14 child witnesses, plus the state's witness, who took the deal and testified against me."
And then his father pled guilty too."Now I had two co-defendants who had both already confessed, and I was the only person standing up and saying, 'These things never happened,'" Friedman said. "I couldn't get support from my lawyer. My lawyer's position was, basically, 'It doesn't really matter if you're innocent or guilty. There's no way you can win the trial.'"
Jesse Friedman said his mother urged him to plead guilty, fearing that if he went to trial, he would die in prison."I was told if he went to trial, the judge would give three consecutive sentences," Elaine Friedman said. "Instead of concurrent, the sentencing would be consecutive. I said, 'Oh my God.'"
Jesse Friedman said by this point he was convinced no jury would ever believe him. The news had been saturated with the story and the community was up in arms over it.In December 1998, Jesse Friedman went to court and pled guilty, saying he too was one of this father's victims. He now says none of it was true. Friedman said he lied about his guilt because he felt he didn't have a choice.
"I was 18 years old. My father and I are collectively charged with hundreds of counts. The police assured, through misinformation, through lying, through the pressure of the press, the threats of the judge, that there would be no chance of defense witnesses at the trial," he said.Arnold Friedman ultimately died while serving his prison sentence. Jesse Friedman was released from prison in December 2001.
The case became widely known after an Oscar-nominated documentary about it called "Capturing the Friedmans" was released in 2003. Filmmaker Andrew Jarecki said even after he finished the film, he could not get the story out of his head. Over the past decade, he continued to investigate, uncovering new evidence that Jarecki said caused him to question whether justice had been served.
"What I learned since is that ... witnesses, who were part of those computer classes have come forward and said to me 'nothing ever happened in those classes,'" he said.During the investigation, 14 young boys, mostly between the ages of 8 and 10 at the time, told police lurid accounts of Arnold and Jesse Friedman committing sodomy and rape.
Jarecki said he recently spoke to 13 of them, now adult men in their 30s, and five of them recanted their charges.One of them, known at the time as Barry Doe, told Jarecki, in an audio-taped conversation, "I can tell you as God is my witness and on my two children's lives, I was never raped or sodomized ... And if I said it, it was not because it happened. It was because someone else put those words in my mouth."
Another, known as Stephen Doe, told Jarecki in an audio-taped conversation, "I don't want to be a perjurer or anything but I can't even say that anyone was hit in all honesty ... they were asking me a lot of questions trying to get something and I just wanted to give them something."Mike Epstein was yet another of the former students who spoke to Jarecki. He said in an on-camera interview that he remembers being questioned by police when he was 8 years old. Though he was not one of the 14 accusers, he said he also lied to police to get them off his back.
"I knew nothing had happened, I wanted to be done with it," Epstein said. "I was so tired of re-hashing it over and over again and I didn't think and I kind of gave up hope on everyone to convince them that nothing had happened because they believed in recovered memories... so eventually I just consciously decided to lie and to say that I had been abused and repeat these crazy things I had heard."Three years ago in a highly unusual move, the New York Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, expressed significant doubts about the original investigation. In a strongly worded ruling, the court asked the Nassau District Attorney's office to re-examine the case, saying, "there is reason to believe Jesse Friedman may have been wrongly convicted."
The investigation that resulted took three years to complete. Investigators re-interviewed old witnesses and examined new evidence.When "Nightline" first interviewed Jesse Friedman, he had been told the district attorney's office was due to issue its report any day. Friedman was optimistic.
"Here I am," he said, "finally at a place where I'm really certain that I'm going to be declared innocent."But that was not to be.
"Nightline" was with him on June 24, the day the report came out. But instead of the exoneration Jesse Friedman had been hoping for, the 155-page report was a scathing endorsement of his conviction, rejecting as "overstated, not reliable or unable to be substantiated" the new material film director Jarecki had sent to the investigators.It also claimed new evidence of Jesse's guilt: "The Review Team discovered signed and sworn statements from three additional boys, who gave detailed accounts of sodomy and sexual abuse committed against them by Jesse Friedman."
The report raised questions about Jesse Friedman's state of mind, citing a doctor hired 25 years ago by his own defense lawyer to evaluate him who noted "his psychopathic personality, narcissism, and inability to distinguish right from wrong."Even more troubling was that the report cited a statement by Jesse's uncle, Howard Friedman, his father's brother, who told prosecutors that he knew Jesse was guilty.
"Jesse is guilty and you are going to ask me how I know," he said, according to the report. "Because Arnold told me."None of this shakes the confidence of Jesse Friedman or his team. Andrew Jarecki and Friedman's current lawyer, Ron Kuby, argue that the report is "full of lies."
A case in point, they said, is a recent letter from former accuser Kenneth Doe, which said, "I write to inform you that none of the events allegedly described by or attributed to Kenneth Doe ever took place... I did not observe Arnold or Jesse Friedman engage in anything even remotely akin to sexual conduct, and I have no reason to believe such events occurred.""I submitted to them a letter from Kenneth Doe," Kuby said. "Kenneth Doe specifically and categorically stated none of things attributed to him -- none of the complaints, none of the allegations -- made by him ever happened. They were all untrue. Now the D.A.'s office can choose, I supposed, to not believe him... but you can't say that this was not a recantation. This was the clearest possible recantation."
And what of Jesse's uncle's statement that his now-dead brother told him that Jesse was guilty? Again, Kuby cried foul."As anyone who saw the film 'Capturing the Friedmans' may have divined from watching the interview with Howard Friedman -- he is not a particularly credible ... person," Kuby said. "He is recounting something that Arnold Friedman -- who by all accounts was crazy -- allegedly said to him. That's not admissible evidence on any courtroom on this planet."
When asked for comment, Nassau County prosecutors told "Nightline" their report spoke for itself. Howard Friedman confirmed to "Nightline" he had indeed told investigators that his now dead brother confessed to him and also told him Jesse was guilty, but declined to elaborate.So what is the truth? Prosecutors say they are convinced they sent a guilty man to prison, but Jesse Friedman passionately denies that. He says what he really wants is the day in court he never had -- the chance to go to trial and let a jury decide what is justice.
"It's really painful when the district attorney lies about you," Friedman said. "I'm standing strong, and I'm-- I have more fight in me than I've ever had before. So, game on."