A man who has been trying for decades to take back his guilty plea in a notorious child molestation case won a huge moral victory Monday when a federal appeals court encouraged prosecutors to reopen their investigation.

Although the judges on the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals denied Jesse Friedman's request to withdraw his plea, saying there was no legal basis to allow that, the panel criticized interrogation techniques by investigators in the 1988 case and actions by prosecutors and the trial judge.

"The record here suggests 'a reasonable likelihood' that Jesse Friedman was wrongfully convicted," the judges said in a 31-page decision. "While the law may require us to deny relief in this case, it does not compel us to do so without voicing some concern regarding the process by which the petitioner's conviction was obtained."

A teenage Friedman and his father, Arnold, pleaded guilty in 1988 to molesting 13 children during computer classes in the basement of their home in Great Neck, on Long Island. Jesse Friedman, now 40, was paroled in 2001; his father committed suicide in prison in 1995. The pair were charged with several hundred counts of sex abuse.

Their case was the subject of the 2003 Oscar-nominated documentary "Capturing the Friedmans."

The federal judges said the allegations against Jesse Friedman must be viewed in the context of the late 1980s and early 1990s, which they called "a period in which allegations of outrageously bizarre and often ritualistic child abuse spread like wildfire across the country and garnered worldwide media attention."

They cited statistics that of 72 people convicted in nearly a dozen major child sex abuse and satanic ritual prosecutions between 1984 and 1995, almost all convictions have since been reversed.

The judges recommended that Friedman's remedy lies in state courts, and they suggested Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice reopen her office's investigation. Rice, who was elected in 2005 and wasn't involved in the original prosecution, currently is seeking the Democratic nomination to run for state attorney general.

"We are reviewing the decision and will be giving the court's opinion serious thought and consideration," Rice spokeswoman Carole Trottere said in a statement.

The documentary, which featured archive video footage of the Friedmans, revealed evidence prosecutors had withheld — that at least one of the children who accused Friedman did so under hypnosis arranged by police.

Because his case never went to trial, Friedman, the court said, never had an opportunity to explore how evidence against him was obtained.

"On the contrary, the police, prosecutors and the judge did everything they could to coerce a guilty plea and avoid a trial," the appeals court said.

A spokesman for the Nassau County courts said the trial judge, Abbey Boklan, has since retired and no contact information for her was available.

Friedman's attorney, Ron Kuby, said his client is married and lives at an undisclosed location on the East Coast. He declined to say what his client does for a living.

"Having been denied justice for decades, I came to believe the system does not work," Friedman said in a statement released by his attorney. "The court's decision today makes me feel that it is holding fast to the truth; there is still hope for justice."

Kuby said he would wait a day or two before contacting Rice's office about what might happen next.