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The case was tried in the media. Once the charges were brought, the community's reaction made the outcome of the trial a foregone conclusion. Even the judge admits her mind was made up from the Friedmans' first court appearance.

Feature article

Capturing the Friedmans: Will it change anything?

by Rob Waring

Capturing the Friedmans, now in theaters, is a likely Oscar contender for best documentary. The film tracks the disintegration of a family whose patriarch is arrested for child molestation. Director Andrew Jarecki's skill makes the film an emotional roller coaster for the viewer. After one interview, you believe one interpretation of what happened, and a few minutes later you find your loyalties shifting to the other side - just until the next bombshell hits. (Another great documentary, American Movie, toyed with the viewer's perspective on the subjects' morality in much the same way.)

One of the key questions raised by the film is the extent to which films should serve as a means to correct injustice. If it is assumed that the system is not perfect and that mistakes will be made, do films about mistakes in specific cases serve some broader purpose that makes the system better or do they simply decrease people's confidence in the system without leading to changes that increase the chances of better results? Should The Innocence Project have a film division to spur change in the criminal justice system through the political process? Is the media so filled with scary stories about child molesters that Capturing the Friedmans is unlikely to have any measurable effect?

After the preview I attended, the director answered questions from the audience. If you decide to explore the issues in the film further with friends or in discussion group, here are some thought-provoking facts he shared, along with others gleaned from radio interviews that aired after the film's release.

Jarecki started to make film about clowns for hire at New York children's birthday parties. He was many months into that project when he learned David's family history and began to turn the film into a story about the Friedmans. The turning point came when Jarecki took David back to visit the family home in Great Neck, and the family now living there let David spend some time in his old bedroom. David began to open up to Jarecki after that, apparently realizing that the story of the events in Great Neck needed to be told.

Susan Orlean, who wrote The Orchid Thief, which became the movie Adaptation, wrote a New Yorker article about David being the most popular children's clown in New York City in 1994, and only learned that he was the son of a convicted child molester after the article was published. She said in a recent interview that because of David's family history, she would not hire him to perform at a party for her children. David also has a clown act for adult parties, where he specializes in making balloons into genitalia. Should these facts have been included in the film?

When I asked the director how the making the film changed his view of the justice system, he talked about the how the story was reported in the press at the time, and how the reporting was so prejudicial. A lawyer who was with me commented that the director had not answered my question. But he did, I replied; the case was tried in the media. Once the charges were brought, the community's reaction made the outcome of the trial a foregone conclusion. Even the judge admits her mind was made up from the Friedmans' first court appearance. Jarecki regards each screening of the film as the trial the defendants never had. He has a version five and a half hours long ready for the DVD release.

The judge refused to grant a change of venue motion, but did grant scores of press requests for cameras in the courtroom. She remains absolutely convinced that she did everything right in the cases shown in the film, and has asked the director for a signed publicity poster for the film. She attended early previews of the film before conducting a hearing concerning Jesse's sex offender registration status. Convinced that his insistence that he has not molested anyone made him at risk of repeating his crimes, she assigned him to the highest risk category upon his release from prison. It took him six months to find a place to live because of fears about his past. For the rest of his life, his movements will be constantly monitored by an electronic bracelet. He cannot go to parks or any place where there are children. He must be home at night after 7 PM. He must attend twice weekly sex offender group therapy where the entire subject of discussion is molestation. The judge recently retired and teaches ballroom dancing on cruise ships.

Three friends of Jesse's were prosecuted, convicted and sent to jail for the alleged molestations. The police went to each boy in turn and told him that the others had confessed and implicated him. Each refused to cooperate, insisting on their innocence. Finally, the youngest was offered a deal that he would be treated as a juvenile, serve six months in a youth facility and have his record sealed if he testified against the others. He agreed and testified as requested, but then the judge rejected his deal and sentenced him as an adult to two years. The young snitch appealed and the appellate court ordered the judge to honor his deal. The others, who maintained their innocence, received six years.

The pleas made by the defendants occurred before two hung juries in the contemporaneous McMartin day care center molestation case caused those charges to be dismissed.

Under a pseudonym, the postal inspector wrote to Arnie, the father, many times over a two-year period until Arnie finally sent him some child pornography as requested.

Jarecki says everyone in the film told him things he later discovered were not true, except Jesse Friedman. Jesse says he hopes that the film will cause some of the computer class students to recant their previous statements implicating him, but so far that has not happened.

Posted August 12, 2003

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