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The movie Capturing the Friedmans won deservedly great acclaim for its portrayal of Great Neck, Long Island’s panic over claims that a beloved computer teacher (Arnold Friedman) and his teenage son (Jessie) had sexually abused dozens of former students in the basement of their home. The film also placed the sex-abuse scandal in the context of similar such scandals that were going on around the country that led to the wrongful convictions of numerous men and women. Police officers, therapists, and prosecutors built these cases on highly suggestive interviews of children (the McMartin case, the Fells Acre case, etc), using tactics that in many cases mirrored interrogation tactics used against adult suspects and other tactics like the use of hypnosis to unearth traumatic memories that have since been discredited. In Jesse Friedman’s case, as in others, not a shred of physical evidence corroborated the children’s claims and none of the children ever complained about being abused prior to being questioned by officers, prosecutors and therapists. Jesse has long maintained his innocence, even denying abuse in group therapy while in prison, a move which greatly extended his incarceration. He has, however, been unable to gain relief, in part, because he pled guilty, a move which greatly limits the availability of post-conviction remedies.
A three judge panel of the Second Circuit has denied Jesse relief again, affirming a federal district court’s dismissal of his habeas petition based on the State’s failure to turn over “exculpatory” Brady material as untimely. But it was not a satisfying resolution to any of the three judges. If the judges are right, it was the peculiarities of federal habeas law and the strict time limits under the federal habeas statute plus the absence of definitive United States Supreme Court guidance on the issues raised in Jesse’s petition, that prevented the judges from reaching the merits in the case.
Concerned that Jesse Friedman was wrongfully convicted, but feeling powerless to do anything about it, the judges out of their way to criticize prosecutors and a judge who vowed to convict him and sentence him on every count if he chose to reject a plea. They took the unusual, if not unprecedented step to remind prosecutors of their duty to seek justice and urged the new prosecutor in Nassau County to act “reasonably” by reopening the case and allowing a full inquiry of Friedman’s claims to take place.