I saw the documentary “Capturing the Friedmans” last night. The film is about a “normal” family torn apart when the pedophile father and his eighteen year-old son are accused of (and ultimately plead guilty to) violently molesting children who took computer classes in their home. The case arose against a backdrop of hysteria over purported mass child abuse around the country; some of the alleged perpetrators in other cases have been exonerated.
The film is interesting on many levels, but holds some special interest for a professor, like myself, who teaches evidence and expert evidence. (Warning! spoilers ahead!) There is the prosecutor who recalls that the Friedmans had “stacks” of child pornography in open view in their home (suggesting the sort of recklessness that the Friedmans would have to have if they engaged in the sort of abuse alleged), when in fact there was one magazine in a drawer in an office, and another stash hidden behind the piano. One of the accusers recants as an adult in the film, suggesting he was bullied into his allegations by prosecutors. A parent describes witnessing the bullying of his son, and peer pressure from other parents to support their children’s allegations with further allegations. Another prosecutor involved in the case admits asking children in molestation cases leading questions, and rejecting answers that tend to exonerate the accused. Another accuser, who initially seems a plausible witness to horrific events, reveals that he remembered nothing about the abuse until his memories were recovered (or invented) under hypnosis. Though the Friedmans are accused of repeated anal sodomy on young children, there is no physical evidence supporting the allegations. The allegations themselves seem so extreme as to be virtually unbelievable (one allegation involved an entire computer class of eight to eleven year olds stripped naked and repeatedly and violently sodomized by two adults, with the parents noting nothing amiss when they picked up their children after class). The son pleads guilty, tearfully begging for leniency based on his claim that his father molested him. Later, he claims that he was never molested, that it was his attorney’s idea to make up the story. The attorney, by contrast, swears that the “true” story of the father-son relationship came pouring out of the son one day. Meanwhile, the father admits to molesting children elsewhere, starting with his younger brother, who, fifty-plus years later, claims to remember nothing, making you wonder about the children who now claim, as adults, that their abuse allegations were fabricated. And the father pleads guilty to a long sentence, purportedly to help his son, but without actually cutting a deal with prosecutors to help his son, for reasons that are obscure.
Were both Friedmans falsely accused? Were they guilty, but the allegations exaggerated? Was just the father guilty? Can an admitted pedophile and his son get a fair trial if accused of mass abuse? The film certainly suggests some overzealous behavior by prosecutors, but also a certain level of unwarranted (at least for the father) sympathy for the accused by the director. And the viewer never does hear from any credible alleged victims, and we are never told if that’s because there aren’t any, because the director didn’t talk to everyone, or because he left them out of the movie.
In the end, the director leaves the ultimate issues of guilt or innocence in the underlying crimes unresolved. Highly recommended for anyone interested in criminal law or evidence.
Update:Fascinating overview of the case, with information (previously unknown to me) about the results of studies on pedophilia, by researcher (and fake abuse accusations expert) Debbie Nathan, who concludes that neither Friedman was guilty.