GARDEN CITY, N.Y. – A co-founder of a group that works to exonerate wrongly convicted people was one of four legal experts named Monday to review a notorious 1980s child molestation case that was featured in an Academy Award-nominated documentary.
Innocence Project co-founder and co-director Barry Scheck, perhaps best known as a member of the 1995 O.J. Simpson defense team, agreed to participate along with three others in a review of the prosecution of Arnold and Jesse Friedman, a Nassau County prosecutor said in a statement.
A teenage Jesse Friedman and his father pleaded guilty in 1988 to molesting 13 children during computer classes in the basement of their home in Great Neck, on Long Island, just east of New York City. Jesse Friedman, who was paroled in 2001, has long contended he was coerced into making the guilty plea. His father committed suicide in prison in 1995.
Their story was the subject of the 2003 Oscar-nominated documentary "Capturing the Friedmans."
Last summer, the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals found "a reasonable likelihood that Jesse Friedman was wrongfully convicted." Although the judges' ruling rejected Friedman's appeal on technical grounds, they noted "the police, prosecutors and the judge did everything they could to coerce a guilty plea and avoid a trial."
The documentary, which featured archive video footage of the Friedmans, revealed evidence prosecutors had withheld — that at least one of the children who accused Jesse Friedman did so under hypnosis arranged by police.
The federal judges noted that at the time Friedman pleaded guilty, "allegations of outrageously bizarre and often ritualistic child abuse spread like wildfire across the country and garnered worldwide media attention." They said nearly all those convicted in nearly a dozen major child sex abuse and satanic ritual prosecutions between 1984 and 1995 were later exonerated.
District Attorney Kathleen Rice, who was elected in 2005 and had no role in the initial prosecution of Friedman, said after the appeals court ruling that her office would appoint a panel of experts to assist prosecutors with a review of the case.
Others appointed Monday to the panel include: Patrick J. Harnett, a 32-year New York Police Department veteran and former chief of the Hartford, Conn., police department; Susan Herman, a professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at Pace University and former executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime; and Mark F. Pomerantz, a nationally known trial lawyer.
Scheck co-founded the Innocence Project at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at New York's Yeshiva University with Peter Neufeld, a fellow Simpson lawyer specializing in DNA evidence.
The panelists, who are working for free, have no particular deadline in pursuing their investigation, prosecutors said.
"This investigation involves a unique set of circumstances, so we designed an equally unique process that we believe will enable the fair and efficient evaluation of the case," Rice said in a statement. "Nobody knows whether or not our reinvestigation will upend Jesse Friedman's guilty plea or corroborate it, but what we do know is that our review will be completely transparent and thorough."
Friedman's attorney, Ronald Kuby, who had previously called for a special prosecutor to be named to investigate, said Monday he was pleased with Rice's appointments.
"For once my cynicism has proved to be unfounded," Kuby said. "This is not a panel that will rubber-stamp anyone's agenda. We hope and have every expectation of a full and fair inquiry."
Friedman currently works as a bookseller in the Northeast, Kuby said, declining to be more specific.