Lisa Friel, the star of Lisa Jackson’s HBO documentary “Sex Crimes Unit” and its leader for the last 10 years, is leaving the department. The film premiered last month at the Los Angeles Film Festival.
Jackson had unprecedented access in making the documentary, which features Friel and her staff in frank discussions about their strategies in prosecuting actual cases. HBO first aired the documentary June 20.
According to the New York Post, the documentary shot footage of D.A. investigators Ed Tacchi and Lauren Liebhauser discussing the police rape case of ex-cops Franklin Mata and Kenneth Moreno. That footage was never used, but the judge in the case ruled that the footage should have been turned over to the defense.
On May 26, Moreno and Mata were convicted of misdemeanor misconduct but acquitted on charges of rape and burglary. Moreno’s attorney told the New York Post that he will be seeking a mistrial due to the documetary footage.
The judge’s ruling fell under a familiar tenet of New York criminal law, the Rosario rule. If a prosecution witness has made prior statements that relate to that witness’ testimony, Rosario requires the prosecutor to provide those statements to the defense.
However, the Rosario rule appears to have been carefully considered even before the shoot began. A source close to the production confirms that Jackson’s access came with the promise that all footage and other materials would be turned over to the D.A.’s office, which oversaw Friel and the Sex Crimes Unit. That promise was fulfilled before the shoot wrapped production last summer.
Friel’s exit comes as her supervisor, Manhattan district attorney Cy Vance, is under repeated attack for his handling of a number of cases, including its high-profile prosecution of former International Monetary Fund managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
Vance chose to remove the Strauss-Kahn case from the oversight of the Sex Crimes Unit. Now, the case threatens to fall apart after the prosecution has discovered its witness has lied on a number of occasions. Per the New York Times:
Some people in the office said that decision hurt the office’s handling of the case because those prosecutors were not as familiar with the types of problems that sex crimes prosecutors routinely face: a victim with a troubled background; a he-said, she-said story.
With an experienced sex crimes prosecutor, an official in the office said, “some of these very things that have come up, or even some things that might have come up during deeper examination by people who were experienced in this, might have come up faster.”
Mr. Vance’s top aides said that the outcome of the case would have been the same if it had been handled by the sex crimes unit, and that some of the office’s best prosecutors were on the case.
The New York Times received an email addressed to prosecutors in the SCU from Karen Friedman Agnifilo, chief of the trial division, announcing Friel’s resignation.
After nearly three decades in the district attorney’s office, “Lisa Friel has informed us of her decision to explore other professional opportunities outside the office,” said an e-mail to prosecutors in the office from Karen Friedman Agnifilo, the chief of the trial division.
“During the next two months, she will transition out of her role as chief of the sex-crimes unit,” Ms. Friedman Agnifilo wrote.
However, in a letter that Friel sent to friends and colleagues Sunday afternoon, she says: ” I did not resign, nor did I get fired, but I did announce to my Unit this past week that I was leaving for financial and other reasons.” [See full letter here.]
Martha Bashford, a co-chief of the forensic science and cold case unit, will step in as acting sex crimes chief. She was also prominently featured in the documentary.
Here’s HBO’s promo clip for the series: