When Andrew Jarecki’s Oscar-nominated documentary Capturing the Friedmans was released a decade ago, it was applauded for its evenhandedness, for the ambiguity of Jarecki’s approach, which seemed willing to leave open questions about the guilt of its primary subject, Great Neck computer teacher and convicted child molester Arnold Friedman. “The film is an instructive lesson about the elusiveness of facts,” wrote Roger Ebert. “Jarecki calls into question the behavior of the police, news media and the Great Neck community; yet he by no means flinches from spelling out that something sinister, decayed or worse was taking place in the Friedman household,” noted USA Today’s Mike Clark. But the film’s critics accused Jarecki of adopting that perspective as a pose, when his belief in his subject’s innocence was more cut and dried. Any questions about what the filmmaker thinks have been laid to rest in the years since Capturing the Friedmans’s release, as Jarecki and his team have worked to overturn the conviction of Jesse Friedman; they presented some of the evidence they’ve assembled on his behalf in New York City last night.
“While we were making the film, there was so much evidence that the case had been mishandled by the police, that there had been bad behavior, bordering on criminal behavior, by so many people who worked on it,” Jarecki said at the gathering of media, friends, and family. “We were experiencing something that seemed like, to us, an incredible miscarriage of justice, and I feel like that was conveyed in the film.” But the case is so complex, and the motivations for the guilty plea of Jesse (the eldest son of Arnold) are so wrapped up in legalese and other concerns, that Capturing the Friedmans is ultimately more about the familial drama within that Great Neck home, and the way that the community reacted to it.
Jarecki’s current concern is to have Jesse Friedman’s conviction overturned, on the basis of investigative and legal misconduct, in addition to convincing arguments for his innocence. (As the documentary reveals, Arnold Friedman died in prison in 1995.) Demonstration of both is presented in the 45-minute “evidence reel” that Jarecki shared at last night’s event — a version of which has been presented to the panel conducting a complete review of the case. That panel was appointed after the Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, in upholding a habeas corpus claim, excoriated the original prosecution and trial, and suggested a “reasonable likelihood” that the younger Friedman was wrongly convicted.
That was over two years ago. While the panel conducts their independent investigation, Jesse Friedman remains a level-three sex offender, the restrictions of which he and his family hope to escape via an official exoneration. “It is the dominant factor in any family planning at all,” Jesse noted, in a rare moment of conversation (he mostly sat quietly during the Q&A following the screening of the evidence reel).
Jarecki can’t even be sure if the panel has looked at his footage — but they should. Patiently yet urgently presenting further evidence related to the case, including multiple recantations from the now-grown accusers in the original case, the reel painstakingly examines each class in question, the charges leveled, and the resulting conflicts. The original investigators’ reliance on therapy, hypnosis, and suggestion is thoroughly roasted. The logic of Jesse’s original guilty plea is explained. The footage makes, it must be said, a compelling and cogent case.
There is, according to Friedman’s attorney Ron Kuby, “some sense that the process is drawing to a close.” He anticipates that “probably sometime during the month of April, they will make some sort of announcement — about which we may or may not be given notice — in which they will say something.” Kuby and Jarecki don’t anticipate the outcome going their way, but in the meantime, they’re encouraging interested parties to visit their website, which features some footage from the evidence reel and a petition to Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice, encouraging her to overturn Friedman’s conviction. “It’s emotional for me,” Jarecki says, “because what happened to Jesse Friedman could happen to any kid.”