The Roman Polanski story has certainly gotten interesting. Well, actually, the story is still only mildly interesting, but the discussion about it has developed in interesting ways. So, I thought I’d muddy the waters by throwing in a few thoughts.
This is one of those situations where people have started judging each other on their opinions. Don’t even think about doing that with me. I have not actually formulated an opinion so you’d be wasting your time and mine. The LA authorities, Polanski’s lawyers, none of those involved, have contacted me about my opinion, and I’m not influencing any legislative bodies that might change laws owing to the particulars of this case. And until the Governor of California calls me and asks my opinion, that’s how it is going to stay.
It seems to me that this is what happened:
1) A rape happened. Exactly what happened and who-all is responsible for letting it happen is still up in the air, but Polanski is the perp, it was almost certainly not statutory, and there was a real victim. Did the 13-year old “let” herself be in an out of control situation? Maybe, but while that may be a lesson to all 13 year old would be stars, it does not affect the responsibility of the others involved. Did the 13-year old’s mother drop the ball on this? In retrospect it is hard to see how she didn’t, but we don’t know for sure. Just how far along the spectrum of totally inappropriate sex to forced sodomy did this event fall? That we may never know, because although there is very damning grand jury testimony, the facts of the case were never tried before a jury. But, each person is certainly welcome to form an opinion on this based on the grand jury testimony.
2) Polanski skipped out before sentencing and has used his wealth and privilege to lead a fairly remarkable, productive, and happy life. At least he looks happy.
3) The film industry and all those involved … including every person who reads this blog and loves to watch the Academy Awards shows … has been compliant in ignoring the fact that one of the top directors walked away from an admission of guilt very much related to his professional activities. I think this may be something not noted by other commenters. Polanski’s crime was not just a crime against a particular victim, it was also a crime committed in the context of his professional activities. For either reason, and certainly for both reasons combined, the sorts of questions being asked now should probably have been asked more often and more forcefully all along.
Imagine a person who does NIH funded research stealing a $2,000 TV from Best Buy. He gets caught, convicted, pays is debt to society, and two years later, someone reviewing his grant says “No, he can’t have this grant because he stole a TV from Best Buy.” That would be a hard argument to justify. It is not the role of each and every person to re-judge, re-convict, re-sentence, and re-punish others on a whim.
On the other and, if the same hypothetical person had bought the TV with NIH grant money, subsequent denials of funding may be quite justified, unless the NIH itself came to some conclusion and determined the matter to be history.
Polanski, based on his own admission, carried out classic “casting couch” coercion, and if we take the grand jury testimony at face value (always a questionable thing to do) he carried out a felonious, abhorrent act using his position of power as a director. Subsequent to this, it may have been wrong for The Academy to consider submissions of his films as best picture or best director nominees.
4) But it is still a complicated story, and made more complicated by the contrasting time frames of “then” and “now” which represent real differences in the way sex crimes are perceived and treated, and how victims are treated. I’m not sure, but I’m pretty certain that the phrase “What part of ‘no’ do you not understand” in relation to male sexual aggressiveness, as reflective or symbolic of changing attitudes, post dates Polanski’s crime. There really may be a “then” vs. “now” phenomenon happening here, that substantively affects every aspect of the current situation. (Stephanie Zvan, on the comment thread cited above, noted that the shift towards focus on and concern with child pornography post dates the Polanski affair.)
The victim was willing, even eager, to arrange a plea bargain, largely because the treatment of her by investigators and the press was appallingly bad (or so it seems). Therefore, there ended up being very little relationship between the charges against Polanski and what actually happened. The latter is pretty common … the official record of convictions in American criminal courts bears almost no resemblance to the pattern of criminal activity those courts supposedly address. The former … the bad treatment of the victim … is surely still something that happens, but there are huge differences in at least what is supposed to happen now as opposed to the 1970s.
This disconnect is actually at the heart of the matter. Had this case been tried today, it is unlikely that a bargain quite like this would have been struck. Pleas are routine, and very high-level felonies are commonly pled way down when there is not an actual victim, but where there is a victim, this would be unusual.
5) There was almost no relationship between the nature of the crime and the plea, but also, there was little relationship between the plea and the judge’s behavior. By all accounts, the judge acted in a very unprofessional manner. It has been claimed that the prosecuting attorney remarked that it was not surprising that Polanski skipped town before sentencing given what the judge had said in out-of-court contexts.
As we look at the situation now, with Polanski facing extradition to the US from Switzerland, much of the discussion seems to ignore the fact that a lot has changed in 30 years, especially with respect to sex crimes. Had the treatment of victims then been what it is like now, it is likely that Polanski would have faced more serious charges that were more in line with what (apparently) actually happened. Had the prosecutors been more professional, and certainly, the judge not been a publicity hound and (it would seem) more than a little whacked out, Polanski would have received a trial that would have ended in reasonable certainty about what happened, or the plea would have reflected reality more closely.
We can look at the grand jury testimony today and conclude whatever we like, but grand juries don’t convict people for a reason. A post-grand jury conviction without a trial would be a very serious breech of someone’s rights. Who knows what would have happened in a fair trial process? Grand juries are staged by prosecutors. As with all testimony, there is a strong potential for the witness to be prepped, and in a grand jury, there is no cross examination. Grand juries are given great powers to investigate but no powers to convict because the former so easily obviate due process. When I read the grand jury testimony in this case, I feel reasonably comfortable coming up with an opinion, which I won’t give you, about what happened. But then I remember how often my grandmother, who could not hear, was asked to serve on the grand jury with all her other friends who could not hear. But they could nod. And they all thought the prosecutor was a nice man and hansom too.
Even given differences in the reality of how sex crimes were handled “back then” vs now, Polanski seems to have behaved very badly and to have truly victimized this young girl. Since he never stood trial for that, however, we are only guessing today, but probably with some degree of confidence. If Polanski raped the girl, that would be his biggest crime, but the crime for which he copped was not as severe, and maybe not, to some, as severe as the crime of skipping town (this is a philosophically difficult question).
I have to admit, I’ve not been a huge fan of his movies.
Post Script: OK, at the beginning I said I don’t have an opinion. Maybe I do, and maybe I’ll tell you what it is.
The criminal justice system failed the young girl by not treating her like a presumed victim of a sexual assault should be treated. This led to the easy way out for her being a significantly reduced charge for Polanski. If he really was guilty of that for which he was convicted in the plea (and nothing else) he probably had an excellent case for whatever abuse he would have suffered by the hands of the judge, if things turned out like some say they would have. If, on the other hand, the judge was passing out a sentence commensurate with the crime Polanski is presumed to have committed (but was not convicted for) then the same criminal justice system that failed the victim also failed Polanski.
Those who insist on convicting Polanski in the court of public opinion based on the released grand jury testimony do not know much about grand juries. Note: A grand jury has never sent anyone to jail. They can’t because they do not represent due process. An indictment that comes from such a proceeding is not a conviction. In my opinion, the girl was truly raped by Polanski. But that is no more than a guess. She was probably raped, but, in fact, the criminal justice system says otherwise. So, perhaps the criminal justice system failed yet again in this regard as well.