Tuesday, December 15, 2009

LTG 11/30/09 - On Polanski

From the Omaha CityWeekly


Is 58 days in jail worth 31 years of life as a fugitive?

By the time you read this, noted film director Roman Polanski may have been released from a Swiss jail to house arrest in his chalet in Gstaad, pending his extradition to the United States. There’s been a lot of noise about Polanski’s case, which I thought made it ripe for discussion.

Plus, I wanted an opportunity to make a Gstaad reference in a column. I watched too many James Bond movies growing up, apparently.

Polanski’s legal problems started back in 1977, when he was arrested for having sex with a 13-year-old girl. Although charged with a number of felonies, he ended up pleading to a single count of “unlawful sexual intercourse.” It was when he reached sentencing that his case got a little strange.

After the plea, but before sentencing, Polanski was sent to prison for a 90-day psychiatric evaluation. The doctor evaluating him released Polanski after 42 days, but the judge let it be known that he wanted Polanski to serve the full 90 days in custody.

Polanski was not pleased with the prospect of spending an additional 58 days in the Grey Bar Hotel, and therefore decided not to show up for his sentencing hearing. A warrant was issued for his arrest, and Polanski has been a fugitive since February 01, 1978.

France was Polanski’s destination of choice, home of the Louvre, Thierry “Handball” Henry, and most importantly, a lack of extradition. He’s lived and worked in France ever since, at least until he made the mistake of attending a film festival in Switzerland. Apparently, a deal was made between American and Swiss authorities to arrest Polanski if he came to Switzerland.

The Swiss judge set a bail of $4.5 million for Polanski to be released pending his challenge to extradition, requiring Polanski to give up his identity papers and wear a locator bracelet. He must also remain on house arrest in his Gstaad (there it is again) chalet, which apparently has a breathtaking view of the Swiss Alps.

Um, can I be put on house arrest there, too?

Polanski and his friends have mounted a vigorous defense in the media and the courtroom. The primary legal challenge is that the judge overstepped his authority by deciding Polanski’s sentence prior to the hearing date. Therefore, Polanski’s lawyers argue, the sentence should be thrown out so Polanski can – I don’t know, stay at his Gstaad chalet, I guess.

The legal challenge is relatively easy to deal with. Yes, the judge acted inappropriately if he said definitively what he was going to do. It’s a judge’s job to be neutral and to render a decision based solely on the evidence presented to him or her. If the judge had pre-judged Polanski’s sentence before hearing the arguments of his attorney, that did deny Polanski a fair hearing.

However, if that happened, Polanski shouldn’t get a literal “get out of jail free” card. The remedy is for the judge to recuse himself, and for a different and neutral judge to preside over sentencing.

More importantly, the fact that the judge may or may not have done something inappropriate is secondary to the issue of Polanski’s choosing not to join everyone else at the Palace Hotel ballroom for his sentencing. Polanski was under a legal duty to appear in court when ordered to do so, regardless of whether he thought the process was unfair. By skipping out on sentencing, Polanski committed a separate crime even if the underlying sentence would have been thrown out in a later proceeding.

That’s part of how the criminal justice system works. Not only is there insufficient space in our jails to hold every person accused of a crime, there are many times when jailing someone while they wait for trial wouldn’t be fair. There has to be a system in place where people can be released with a promise to appear later in court, even if it means something bad will happen to them when they show up. But that system can only work if there’s a punishment for someone who breaks the rules.

Polanski’s defenders have also argued that the crime happened a long time ago, that the victim doesn’t want to see Polanski in jail, and that Polanski has made a lot of great films. For all those reasons, they say, the authorities should forget about the whole sex with a 13-year-old thing.

Sure, Polanski has made some wonderful films, like “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Chinatown.” (Although, strangely enough, not “The Fugitive.”) But, last I checked, making great movies is not a defense for statutory rape. And in criminal cases, it’s the government and not the victim that makes a decision on how to proceed. If victims controlled whether a criminal case went forward, then there would be an even greater opportunity for an accused to escape prosecution by intimidating or threatening their victim. The system, quite rightly, takes the decision on whether to prosecute away from the victim in part for the victim’s protection.

Those who know me should understand I’m the last person to channel my inner Sarah Palin and rail against the “Hollywood elites.” But the behavior of Polanski and his defenders is sickening. If Polanski had just sat his remaining 58 days out, none of this ridiculous story would be happening. It’s really a story of arrogance and celebrity entitlement at its worst. I hope the judge throws the book at Polanski, and leaves him to rot in his Gstaad chalet.

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