A Nassau judge has tossed a lawsuit against the county’s former district attorney and two of her press aides after finding they could not have legally defamed a man who is fighting to overturn his conviction when they released a report about him in 2013.
State Supreme Court Justice Karen Murphy said in a decision this week that former Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice had “absolute immunity for her conduct in producing the report of [Jesse Friedman’s] conviction integrity review.” The judge said the same shield extended to her two staffers, John Byrne and Shams Tarek.
Friedman, 45, claimed in a lawsuit filed in July that Rice defamed him when she released a June 2013 report that painted him as a “narcissist” and “psychopath” who possessed child pornography in prison. The report, which concluded Friedman’s conviction was justified, referenced prison disciplinary records that prosecutors said showed Friedman had been caught with sexually explicit stories about children while behind bars. Nassau prosecutors later told a judge that prison officials acquitted him of those accusations.
Friedman’s lawyer, Ron Kuby, said the judge “did not find DA Rice innocent of defaming” his client but instead that she should be “shielded from responsibility” because, under state law, she has immunity as a prosecutor. He said the judge’s ruling was “effectively placing them above the law.”
“The report incorrectly states that Mr. Friedman was punished for writing and distributing these stories,” the judge wrote in her Feb. 24 decision. “This information was repeated in an email to a reporter and in press releases.”
The defamation suit, which named Rice, who has since been elected to Congress, as well as Byrne, Rice’s former spokesman, and Tarek, who works as the DA’s communications director, as defendants, sought monetary damages.
“Her outrageous statements about Friedman occurred in press releases and other campaigning that went far beyond the bounds of her normal responsibility for carrying out the tasks of her office,” Kuby said of Rice. “Jesse Friedman will have justice in his case despite the actions of former DA Kathleen Rice and the effort of the Nassau District Attorney’s office to deny justice for Jesse Friedman … As long as courts are willing to grant such immunity, prosecutors will continue to engage in misconduct, confident they will never have to accept responsibility for their actions.”
Friedman served 13 years in prison and has spent more than a decade trying to overturn his conviction. He and his father, Arnold Friedman, both pleaded guilty to abusing more than a dozen young boys who had taken computer classes in their Great Neck home.
Friedman, who now lives in Connecticut, has said he pleaded guilty because he feared a potential life sentence had he been convicted at trial. He claims he is innocent of the crimes and has filed legal papers contending that there is new evidence to prove his claim. He alleges that students and parents have since recanted their accusations and asserts that evidence in the case was coerced and that there was misconduct by the judge.
Arnold Friedman committed suicide in prison. The Friedmans’ case was the subject of an Oscar-nominated documentary, “Capturing the Friedmans.”
Prosecutors have disputed Jesse Friedman’s allegations and assert that he is guilty. They consented to a hearing for Friedman to prove his innocence, which is slated for later this year.
In a statement, acting Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas said she stands behind Friedman’s conviction review report and that the judge’s decision “recognizes the importance of the conviction integrity review process as a critical function of a prosecutor’s office.”
Through a spokesman, Rice declined to comment.
Byrne, who no longer works at the DA’s office, said the decision is “good news for those who have been actually been wrongfully convicted, so prosecutors can do conviction integrity work without fear of being personally sued by guilty people who don’t like their findings.”
Tarek did not respond to a request for comment.