The Lessons of Capturing the Friedmans: Moral Panic, Institutional Denial, and Due Process
3 Journal of Law, Culture and Humanities 293 (2007).
27 Pages Posted: 18 Aug 2005 Last revised: 21 Mar 2017
In the 1980's hundreds of childcare workers were accused of sexually abusing children in horrific ways. Arnold and Jesse Friedman, whose prosecutions are chronicled in the film Capturing the Friedmans, were among those convicted and sent to prison during this period. Sociologists have called this series of prosecutions a classic moral panic: a widespread, hostile, volatile overreaction to a perceived societal threat. This paper examines the concept of moral panic in the context of the day care sexual abuse prosecutions in general, and the Friedman prosecutions in particular. It begins by exploring the role of the legal system in the construction of a moral panic, asking how a system which styles itself as rational and process oriented becomes the handmaiden of institutionalized hysteria. It then considers whether moral panic is a useful heuristic for understanding how justice was derailed in the Friedman cases and many others, and for determining what ought to be done to address the problem. It argues that the concept is limited in its ability to distinguish normatively between cases of overreaction and cases of institutional denial. Further, it suggests that, to the extent the concept of moral panic misconceives these periods of institutionalized hysteria as a series of isolated phenomena, it does not adequately address the deeply entrenched causes of injustice in cases like the Friedman prosecutions. The paper ultimately concludes that the concept of moral panic is useful because it reminds us of the cultural and historical contingency of notions of criminal justice and criminal deviance. Nevertheless, the concept has limitations that render it inadequate to address the hurdles to justice encountered in the Friedman cases. Most prominently, the concept is hindered by its retrospective nature. Like the question of guilt or innocence, the notion of moral panic is backward-looking, and therefore not well suited to addressing the prospective question of how the justice system can be reformed to dismantle ongoing, systemic hurdles to criminal justice.
Keywords: Moral panic, law and film, criminal justice
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