Most lawyers would take it as a given that judges and their law secretaries are very tightly bound to each other. That is why it was so striking to see the law secretary to a now-retired Nassau County Court judge expressing doubts last weekend about the legal validity of one his judge’s most famous cases.
The judge was Abbey Boklan who retired from the County Court in 2003. Judge Boklan’s former law secretary is Scott Banks, who is now a criminal defense attorney on Long Island. The case was the child molestation prosecution of Arnold and Jessie Friedman, which was the subject of an award winning film released in 2003, “Capturing the Friedmans.”( Click here to view the WiseLawNY article on parallels between the Friedman case and that of bus driver Robert Izzo.)
Banks’ doubts about the grand jury record in the Friedman case were aired in public for the first time at a community meeting at the The Inn at Great Neck on Sunday, Nov. 18. Twenty-five years ago, Great Neck was roiled by police claims that hundreds of the community’s children may have been molested, and in numerous instances sodomized, by the two Friedmans.
Arnold Friedman, a retired high school chemistry teacher, pled guilty in 1988 to sexually abusing young boys, ages 8-13, attending an after-school computer class which he taught at his home. Nine months later, his son, Jesse, then 19, who had helped out with the classes for the prior four years, also pled guilty. Arnold was sentenced to at least 10 years in prison, and Jesse to at least 6.
In 2003, the makers of “Capturing the Friedmans,” Andrew Jarecki and Mark Smerling, were agnostic about the guilt of the two Friedmans. By 2003, Arnold had committed suicide in prison, and Jesse, after serving 13 years of a maximum 18-year term, had been released on parole in 2001.
At the community meeting, the two filmmakers showed the results of their latest examination into the case in an hour-long film screened for an audience of approximately 125, many of them Great Neck residents at the time of the molestation accusations. Jarecki flatly said to the audience that their latest research left him with no doubts: the heinous acts that prosecutors claimed Jesse Friedman committed “did not happen.”
The text of Banks’ remarks in a recorded telephone interview with Smerling was among the newly documented information, which was brought to light in this most recent film. In the interview, Banks, who is one of the few persons to have had access to the grand jury minutes of the three indictments against the Friedmans, said he found them to be “troubling.”
The issues he flagged were “the lack of date specificity” and the absence of “medical testimony in the grand jury” to support the children’s claims, which in the case of sodomy would require proof of penetration.
Banks also questioned whether events had occurred in the manner portrayed by the prosecution. As a father, he said, “if my own children were going through something like that, I would see some trauma, something.” He also added that he was “bothered” that the children continued to sign up for additional classes.
For her part, Boklan said during an interview screened in the 2003 film, “there was never a doubt in my mind about their guilt.” She also stated, however, in an interview on CNN, that when Jesse’s lawyer, Peter Panaro came in “to discuss whether I’d go along with the agreed upon sentence” that she knew that Friedman had failed two lie detector tests and had also signed a confession.
Panaro, in an affidavit, said that at a conference in Boklan’s chambers approximately a month before he pled guilty, the judge stated that, if Friedman went to trial, she would sentence him to consecutive terms in prison for every count upon which he was convicted.
Boklan could not be reached for comment this afternoon.
In an interview after the screening, Banks said that he and Boklan had quite different perspectives. She had been in charge of sex crimes prosecutions when she had been at the District Attorney’s Office before becoming a judge. Once on the County Court, she was designated as the judge to preside over sex crimes cases.
Banks, on the other hand, had handled criminal cases for the Legal Aid Society in Nassau County before Boklan hired him as her law secretary in 1987. Shortly after Friedman was sentenced, Banks said he resigned as Boklan’s law secretary and joined the criminal defense firm of Capetola & Doddato. A few months later the Capetola firm was retained to represent Robert Izzo, a school bus driver who was accused of molesting young children in a case with close parallels to the Friedmans. Banks is now with the firm of Kenneth J. Weinstein P.C. in Garden City.
Since 2003, Jarecki and Smerling have interviewed five of the 14 students who accused the Friedmans of abusing them in testimony to the grand jury. Three recanted their accusations. One claims no recollection. And one stands by his accusations, which he continues to say he recovered after being hypnotized. The filmmakers report that they contacted five of the other boys (all now in their thirties) who gave grand jury testimony against the Friedmans. All five sidestepped the issue of whether they had witnessed abuse, Smerling said.
Jarecki and Smerling further interviewed eleven others who had taken the computer classes, all of whom say they never saw anything improper occur.
A 9-Year-Olds’ Coded Message for His Mom
One of the most moving segments of the new film involves a mother, Arline Epstein, who in 1988 believed that her son, Mike, had been molested despite his insistence that he had not been. On the film, Mike, recounts how he broke down and claimed that abuse took place in the classes only to stop repeated questioning from his mother and therapist, both of whom had made it clear that they believed he had been abused. His therapist, Mike said on screen, had recommended hypnosis to recover the suppressed memories of his abuse. For a fuller account of the Epsteins’ resolution of their differences click here to view the story published last week in NY Jewish Week.
Mike, despite eventually stating that he had experienced abuse, said he refused to testify in the grand jury against the Friedmans because “I knew I was lying.”
Mike’s mother, in the film, said that she only recently accepted that her son had not been abused after he told her he had gone to the District Attorney’s Office and had publicly stated in a filmed interview that he had not been molested.
After Mike informed her of what he had done, his mom went back through her old files and discovered a coded note written with a green Magic Marker in Mike’s nine-year-old block lettering. It contained the following letters on three separate lines “I D W T T A I”, I D R” and “I L”. With the benefit of hindsight, she figured out that Mike was trying to tell her “I didn’t want to talk about it” (first line); “I don’t remember” (second line); and “I lied” (third line).