Andrew Jarecki Reflects On 'Capturing the Friedmans' and Why It Needs a Sequel
Watching the film now is a unique experience because that the story never ended. The Friedmans--most of them, anyway--are still dealing with the repercussions of Arnold and Jesse's incarcerations. What are some of the key developments since "Capturing the Friedmans" came out?
I was just looking at the timeline of the case before you called. I realized that in December of this year, it will be the 25th anniversary of Jesse Friedman's arrest. Jesse has been through a tremendous amount of change in those 25 years. He was arrested as an 18-year-old kid. He then spent 13 years in jail and has been out now for over a decade. The whole time, he's been fighting to get his conviction overturned. That's typical when you have somebody in jail and you find they have a tremendous amount of motivation for getting out of jail. He's doing this without any resources, he really has no money. He's married to an amazing girl who's been very supportive and has managed to make a life for himself -- despite the fact that he's still considered a level-three violent sexual predator. This is a guy who couldn't be more gracious and low key.
I think it impressed me to see how he's evolved since then. Needless to say, the predictions by the judge and other people that Jesse was going to become a sexual predator in the years that followed, and if you let a person like this out of jail he was going to go offend again -- that may be true of somebody who was perpetuated certain kinds of crimes, but what does it say about somebody who was in jail for 13 years and has been a model citizen since then? He's happily married and living a low-key existence in Connecticut, spending a great deal of time fighting to clear his name.
In that case, does the original movie need a sequel?
I think it might make sense to update the story at some point. Certain things are happening in this story anyway without the filmmaking part getting engaged. About two years ago, Jesse's efforts to get this case reexamined yielded a very positive surprise because [he's represented by] an indefatigable civil rights lawyer. I think he has 100 clients and I'd be surprised if two of them pay him any money. He really fought hard to get Jesse's case in front of the Second Circuit, the second highest court of the land. The Second Circuit came out with a really remarkable, unusual opinion that was almost unprecedented. They thought there was a strong likelihood that Jesse was unfairly convicted and his guilty plea was coerced. The judge, by threatening him, which you see in the film, put him in an impossible position. That kind of behavior has been shown by the courts to be impermissibly coercive.
"Certain things are happening in this story anyway without the filmmaking part getting engaged."
The judge said, "If you choose to go to trial and lose, I'm going to give you the maximum sentence." That's what happened in this case. So the Second Circuit came out with a very strong mandate and asked the National County District Attorney--a new person, because the old DA has passed away--to reopen the case and consider whether Jesse's conviction should be overturned. So that was a big, big event that surprised a lot of people. Maybe there was some advantage from the profile of the movie and Jesse being out there fighting for so long. So now the Nassau County DA has agreed to reexamine the case. We're really hoping there's an opportunity for an appropriate review.
Did you consider the possibility that the movie could have this impact when you were making it?
I guess I tried to do two things at the time. Number one, I said look: Arnold Friedman was a pedophile and kind of irredeemable. But that doesn't mean his son was guilty of these shocking crimes. The fact that Arnold Friedman possessed a small amount of child pornography is equally unsupportable but also doesn't say anything about his son. In the course of our investigation and the work we did, we were studious about separating out Arnold from Jesse. Here you have this 18-year-old, who would have been 14 or 15 at the time of these outrageous crimes, and we just said that it requires another look. When you look at the primitive quality of the police work at the time -- how they bullied the children in the interviews -- you realize that, whatever your gut feeling is about somebody's innocence or guilt, that's not a way to run an investigation. Once the well is poisoned, there's really no way to convict somebody based on that kind of investigation.
It's hard not to think about this discussion in light of the "Paradise Lost" trilogy, which also involved unfairly convicted teenagers. The issue isn't whether or not they're guilty but instead the ineffectualness of the American justice system. Did you always think of the movie as a work of advocacy?
It depends on the constituency. I think I was always advocating for truth. I was advocating a level of understanding. The film was never made as an advocacy piece for Jesse Friedman, which may differentiate it from the "Paradise Lost" films. But at the same time, you couldn't watch the film without recognizing that the process of justice was so broken in this situation that Jesse had to be reconsidered as an individual, not as his father's diabolical assistant, but rather as a person who was ultimately in an impossible situation. When the police are making false statements to the press about finding child pornography [all over the house], and Newsday feels comfortable publishing it, before you know it, everybody in town is reading this version of events.
So for us, we knew we were going back and digging through material. We didn't know what we would find; we thought we would find more information that would indicate Jesse's guilt, but we didn't find that. We found that the one boy in the film who speaks about remembering being abused is a very troubled person with a very damaged set of memories and is contradictory about most of the things he tells us. Then we went back to interview the judge and the judge said, in so many words, "There was never a doubt in my mind as to their guilt." To the extend that it was an advocacy piece for anything, it was a request to the audience to open their minds to the possibility that this was an unfair conviction.