Thursday, October 1, 2009

What do we think about the Roman Polanski case?

I'm sure you've all heard by now about the shocker arrest of director Roman Polanski in Switzerland this last Saturday (September 26). While attempting to enter the country, where he was to receive a lifetime acheivement award, Polanski was arrested on an international warrant issued by US authorities. This all stems from the fact that, in 1978, after pleading guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor and while awaiting sentencing Polanski fled the United States. A lot of public figures -- Hollywood directors and actors as well as European politicians -- have come out condemning the arrest and possible extradition of the esteemed, 76-year-old Franco-Polish director for something that happened a long time ago, but I say we look at the details of what Polanski actually did as well as the history of his case before we form our own opinions.

What did Polanski do?

The incident occured in 1977. Polanski asked to photograph a 13-year-old girl named Samantha Geimer for French Vogue and her mother agreed. On the first photo shoot, he took some topless pictures. The girl later testified that she had been uncomfortable with this. Nevertheless, she went back for a second session. This time they ended up at Jack Nicholson's house: Polanski plied her with champagne and gave her half a quaalude, he undressed her, they got into the hot tub together, and then they ended up in the bedroom. There Polanski had sex with her, performing cunnalingus, vaginal and anal intercouse.

Geimer claimed that she was raped: she testified that, before they got to the bedroom, she had asked Polanski to take her home but he demurred saying "I'll take you home soon" and persuading her lie down. She also says that when the sexual activity started she was on the verge of tears and she told Polanski "No. Come on. Stop it." She says she didn't do more to resist because she was frightened (not to mention drunk and drug-addled -- I might add).

Polanski never denied that he had intercourse with Geimer, but he claimed it was consensual. He also said that he was unaware that she was only thirteen. Angelica Huston, who was Nicholson's girlfriend at the time, was a witness who arrived on the scene around the time that the intercourse was over or at least winding down. She says that the girl was sullen but that she never got the impression that she had been raped or that she felt she was in danger.

The criminal case

After Geimer's family went to the police with their story, Polanski was arrested and charged with a number of crimes such as rape by use of drugs, perversion, sodomy, lewd and lascivious act upon a child under 14, and furnishing a controlled substance to a minor. The LA District Attorney offered Polanski a very favorable plea bargain: Polanski would plead guilty to the lesser crime of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor (basically, statutory rape), and the DA would recommend the Judge let me him off with time served in light of the 42 days he'd spend in prison undergoing psychological evaluation. But, in light of public opinion, the Judge apparently decided that he was going to reject the DA's suggestion and sentence Polanski to additional jail time. When Polanski and his lawyer got wind of this on the eve of his sentencing hearing, Polanski decided to flee the country.

Why was the DA prepared to let Polanski off so lightly? I think that, in part, this is probably just another example of how celebrities get special treatment in Los Angeles County. It's also possible that Polanski gained sympathy owing to the fact that his pregnant wife had been murdered by the Manson family 8-9 years back (the Sharon Tate muders were surely still fresh in people's minds). But, according to the DA, the main reason is that the 13-year-old victim did not want to take the stand in a trial. We all know what a traumatic experience it can be for a rape victim to take the witness stand against her assaulter, and she just wanted to put this all behind her and move on with her life.

Life as a fugitive

Since 1978, as far as the United States is concerned, Polanski has been a fugitive from justice. He's spent most of his time living in France. Under the French/US extradition treaty, both countries have discretion in deciding whether or not to turn over nationals, and France decided against extraditing the director. Obviously, Polanski has never returned to the US, and he's also been careful to avoid countries like the UK where he was likely to be arrested. Other than these travel restrictions -- and the shadow hanging over him -- Polanski has lived a very comfortable life over the last thirty years.

That documentary

In 2008, a documentary was released called Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (I caught part of it on HBO). A lot of people have criticized the film as being one-sided because it devotes very little time to discussing the crime that Polanski committed. Rather, it focuses on the procedural history of the criminal case against him specifically highlighting the actions of LA County Superior Court Judge Laurence K. Rittenbach which were dishonest and shady and may have amounted to misconduct. Wanted and Desired was responsible for bringing a fresh wave of attention to the decades old Polanski case and it may have even contributed to LA prosecutors' recent push to bring Polanski to justice.

The main point seems to be that the judge had decided to reject the plea bargain agreement between Polanski's counsel and the DA and to sentence him to more jail time. It seems that the judge kept this fact from Polanski and his lawyer and that they only learned of it on the eve of the sentencing hearing. They probably felt deceived since they were given no previous notice that the judge might reject the plea deal, and I think the film leaves it unclear as to whether or not they could have withdrawn the guilty plea at this stage.

Outpouring of support

The governments of France and Poland have both protested Polanski's arrest and asked that he be returned home rather than extradited to the US. Both countries have supposedly appealed to US officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on behalf of the director. France's Culture Minister went so far as to say that Polanski's arrest shows America's dark side.

Meanwhile a number of Hollywood producers, directors and actors including Harvey Weinstein, Martin Scorsese and (crazily) Woody Allen have signed a petition protesting his arrest. This outpouring has to be mostly due to their relationship with Polanski as a colleague and friend, but other's have cited his advanced age (76) and the fact that no one views him as a criminal threat today as factors calling for leniency. Some also point to the fact that the victim has moved on with her life and has stated that she doesn't want to see Polanski serve more time in jail. They also question why the US would be devoting resources to this case which is "ancient history."


More recently, there has been a backlash (at least in the US) against all these cries for Polanski's release. Some victims' rights groups say Polanski is no different than Catholic priests accused of molestation and that no one would suggest they should be granted clemency. If anything, society has come to view crimes like Polanski's even more harshly today than in the seventies, and it is very unlikely that anyone would suggest someone in his position should be let off as lightly as he would have under his plea bargain agreement with the DA.

My opinion

Drugging and sodomizing a 13-year-old girl is a serious crime, and I don't think so many people would be speaking out on Polanski's behalf if the details of what he did were fresh in their minds. Polanski pled guilty to statutory rape: he always admitted that he had sex with the girl, and in order to be convicted of statutory rape the question of whether she "consented" or whether he knew her real age is irrelevant.

As for questions of judicial impropriety, this is something that can be decided by the court system. I think it's questionable whether anything the judge did was so serious as to warrant a reversal of his decision, and I would point out that -- although it rarely happens -- it's within the judge's discretion to reject a plea bargain agreement. If Polanski pled guilty to statutory rape there's no reason why the judge couldn't have sentenced him to the maximum sentence for that crime.

As far as the "but he's an old man" argument, I usually have no sympathy for this. I don't care if Bernie Madoff is a senior citizen, hundreds of people lost their life savings because of his fraud. And I don't care how old the Pol Pots and Pinochets of the world are when they're brought to justice, I advocate public dismemberment. In Polanski's case I'm actually a bit more sympathetic, but then again we must remember that the only reason 30 years have passed is because he fled the country. People shouldn't be rewarded for evading justice.

This case is definitely messy. In an ideal world, Polanski would have stayed put and served his 5 years in prison or whatever like a man. His lawyer could have vigorously fought his sentence on appeal. By now, he'd be a free man and this would all be old news.


Like I said, the fact that he did drug and sodomize a 13-year-old and that he fled the law and lived the high life for thirty years keeps me from sympathizing too much with Polanski's current predicament. I am curious however how this international law case will play out. Will Switzerland hand Polanski over to the US or to France or Poland? Either way, he is likely to spend a lot more time behind bars while the Swiss authorities decide. I would also be interested to see how his case will be handled if he is dragged back before the US court system.

Image: photo of Roman Polanski found on

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