10.05.09

Is Polanski the New O.J.?

L.A. prosecutors tell The Daily Beast's Marcia Clark—who tried O.J. Simpson—that Roman's case should be a slam dunk. No wonder everyone's worried.

As the Swiss deny his appeal for bail, L.A. prosecutors tell Marcia Clark—who tried O.J. Simpson—that Roman's case should be a slam dunk. No wonder everyone's worried.

Roman Polanski’s arrest has sparked some intense and surprising reactions. The movie people—excuse me, they call it “film”—have mounted a “Free Polanski” campaign. And everyone else seems almost more disgusted by that reaction than by Polanski’s crime.

So I was curious: How were the rank and file prosecutors in the Los Angeles district attorney’s office reacting to the director’s Sept. 26 arrest in Zurich for the 1977 rape of a minor, and to the possibility of him being schlepped back to L.A. for trial? A lot of people, some of my friends included, had been under the impression the case was just about a drunken older guy getting a little handsy with a sexy young Lolita in a hot tub. And so they thought, “What’s the big deal? Why waste the time and money on extradition?” Los Angeles prosecutors have caseloads full of victims who’ve endured worse than Polanski’s victim, Samantha Geimer, so I wondered whether they’d look at this case as a headache no one—including the victim—really needed.

“If you manage to pull it off and get a conviction, everyone says, ‘So what? Big deal, it was a no-brainer.’ And if you lose,” the veteran prosecutor looks at me meaningfully and pauses, “well, I don’t have to tell you.”

“He should go to jail or go to trial,” said a young male deputy. The others nodded their agreement. “Yeah, he pled, and he skipped out. If they don’t want to bother with the rape case, they should at least nail him for failure to appear at sentencing,” said a veteran prosecutor, flatly. (Polanski fled abroad after pleading guilty to one count of statutory rape.)

There wasn’t a lot of heat behind the words. It was just a matter-of-fact statement of the obvious. They seemed amused by the question. Their expressions said, “What’s to talk about?” Polanski’s a big director—so? The victim doesn’t want to testify—do they ever? They care very little about what the media reports, what Hollywood thinks, or what anyone else thinks of Hollywood. With all the hoopla swirling around out here, their attitude was refreshing.

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I pressed on, curious to find out if there was any dissension to be found among the ranks: Does anyone think we should just let it go, that he’s done his time? It’s been reported that the judge agreed Polanski wouldn’t have to do any more time after he finished doing the 42 days in prison for diagnostic testing. As I’ve reported, no such statement appears in the transcript of the guilty plea. Should Polanski face a whole new sentence now? Or should he get the pass he claims he was promised? “No way he should get that deal now,” said the veteran prosecutor, as the other two young deputies nodded approvingly.

The young female deputy added, “I don’t think he ever should have anyway.” The other two prosecutors nodded their agreement.

But in that case, he might be allowed to withdraw his plea and go to trial. What if a case can’t be pulled together?

“File the FTA [failure to appear]. He’s hosed on that,” said the older deputy.

That’s true. And that’s a potential three-year stint in state prison. I moved on.

What about the allegations of prosecutorial misconduct?

“God, what’re they saying we did now?” asked a young female prosecutor, her brow wrinkled with worry and curiosity.

I couldn’t help but smile as I remembered—that’s how it was. We all had too much work of our own to worry about what some other prosecutor had done five minutes ago, let alone 30 years ago. I explained the latest claim by Polanski’s lawyers that there was an ex parte communication between prosecutor David Wells and the judge about how to sentence Polanski. And that Wells now says he lied to the filmmakers when he said such a communication took place.

“An ex parte communication?” asked the veteran prosecutor, eyebrows raised. Then he shrugged. “Sure, it’d be wrong—assuming it happened. But why would that get the case thrown out? Polanski’ll have a different judge anyhow.”

True again. No one’s saying it was okay—if it happened. But when you get down to the bottom line, it doesn’t make or break the case. Whatever Wells said to the judge, it doesn’t justify a dismissal.

I couldn’t resist asking, “Would you want the case if/when Polanski gets extradited?’

“Sure,” said the younger male eagerly, his eyes bright with ambition.

The young female prosecutor thought for a moment, then slowly said, “I don’t know.”

Marcia Clark: The Lost Polanski Transcripts But the older veteran had no hesitation. He shook his head. “No way. It’s a lose-lose. The victim doesn’t want a trial, so the case is gonna be an uphill battle. If you manage to pull it off and get a conviction, everyone says, ‘So what? Big deal, it was a no-brainer.’ And if you lose,” he looks at me meaningfully and pauses, “well, I don’t have to tell you.”

The hand that always squeezes my heart at moments like this tightened, and I had to take a deep breath before I answered, “No, you don’t.”

Marcia Clark, the former L.A. district attorney who prosecuted the O.J. Simpson murder case, has since served a regular legal television commentator. She has written a bestselling book, Without a Doubt, served as a columnist for Justice Magazine and is finishing her debut crime novel.