Kate Harding

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Roman Polanski Raped a Child: A Primer

Readers of this column may remember that I am a big fan of America's rule of law, wherein after one is convicted of a crime, one is sentenced accordingly, then given a chance to start anew once that sentence has been served. That's why I was pleased to see that Roman Polanski had been arrested in Switzerland: I believe that if you plead guilty to unlawful sex with a minor, you should serve your jail sentence instead of fleeing to Europe and living a charmed life for 30 years. (I understand that the concept of "starting anew' is made more complicated when it comes to sex with children, but legal measures like Megan's Law were not in effect in 1977.)

But there's also a contingent of journalists, intellectuals, and film buffs who are outraged over Polanski's arrest, and base that outrage on multiple objections. There have been a lot of smart and convincing rebuttals to these objections, most notably Kate Harding's forceful, powerful essay on Salon, "Reminder: Roman Polanski Raped a Child."

In deference to that piece (from which we took our title), we put together a small guide to the most common objections to Polanski's arrest, along with some of the best responses.  

But it wasn't "rape" rape.
Polanski pleaded guilty to unlawful sex with a minor (which is statutory rape) to avoid a trial. In some cases, statutory rape is consensual sex performed between two people. In this case, according to the grand-jury testimony, the victim clearly asked Polanski to stop, and he did not. According to the The Smoking Gun, which has the grand-jury transcripts, " That, in fact, is "rape" rape.

But hey, I'm a law-and-order kind of gal, and Polanski pleaded to a lesser charge─in other words, he confessed only to the "unlawful sex," not rape. That's still illegal. And fleeing the country before sentencing? Also illegal. So even though the letter of the law finds him guilty of a less-horrific crime than the one of which he's accused, he's still guilty of a crime. And when you are guilty of a crime, you have to face the consequences, even if you are rich and powerful and have lots of connections.

The crime was 30 years ago! He's been living on the run ever since. Hasn't he been punished enough?

Punished how? By his gorgeous Paris apartment and his jet-setting European lifestyle and his long and illustrious career? Apparently so:

See, you or I might think that not going back to the U.S. or U.K. is an action Polanski took in order to make sure that, having raped a minor and fled the country, he would not be rearrested. But you or I would be wrong. In fact these are punishments that Polanski has suffered. (Kieran Healy at Crooked Timber)

Polanski was living a life of his own choosing for the past 30 years. He chose to leave the country. He chose to stay out of the country. That's not a punishment.

But he has a really hard life.

First and foremost, "most Holocaust survivors did not grow up to become rapists."

And when they do, do you know what happens? The American justice system has a system in place for that. Says David Poland, "Tell it to the judge. They are called extenuating circumstances ... You don't get a free pass because you have suffered."

But he was demonized by the press and feared heavy sentencing!

'Kate Harding handles this nicely:

Polanski was "demonized by the press" because he raped a child, and was convicted because he pled guilty. He "feared heavy sentencing" because drugging and raping a child is generally frowned upon by the legal system. 

But the victim said she's moved on!

Much of the victim's desire to drop the charges against Polanski comes from her desire to be left alone by the media, and so that she doesn't have to relive the trauma of the attack over and over again. In other words, she wants closure: something Polanski stole from her when he decided to go on the lam instead of serving out his sentence. That callous act shouldn't be rewarded. As for respecting her wishes, I'll defer again to blogger Jeff Fecke

But for good or ill, the justice system doesn’t work on behalf of victims; it works on behalf of justice. And while the victim is no doubt hurt by Polanski’s drawing this out for decades, ultimately more women would be hurt by a justice system that allowed convicted rapists to avoid punishment simply because they were rich and could afford to flee jail. Ultimately, the victim’s feelings must be considered, but they can not be the determining factor in whether a prosecution goes forward.

And even though it was a long time ago, and even though everyone has "moved on," you don't get to outrun the consequences of your actions  because you have money and connections. 

But the judge was super corrupt.

Though Polanski struck a plea bargain with the prosecutors that would prevent him from serving jail time, all plea bargains must be approved by the presiding judge. When word came that Judge Laurence Rittenband was thinking of rejecting the plea in favor of jail time─something that was within the judges rights, but was likely the result of prosecutorial interference─Polanski fled. Which is illegal.

According to Slate:

There is no question that Rittenband violated the ethics code. The question of whether his conversations with Wells are sufficient grounds for dismissal of the charges against Polanski is an open question.There is very little law on the subject to guide the judge who's now presiding over the case. Outright dismissal is an exceedingly rare remedy for ex parte communications, especially when the communications came after the plea agreement was reached. It's far more common for the plea agreement to stand, with a new judge brought in to preside over the sentencing.

Again, the proper response to judicial misconduct is fighting back in a court of law, not the leading glamorous life of a wealthy artistic fugitive.  

But I saw a documentary that proved that the issue is much more ambiguous than you make it sound.

Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired had several problems, not the least of which is its seriously creepy and insensitive title. But it also severely underplayed the severity of the crime by excluding much of the witness's grand-jury testimony while playing up Polanski's personal pain. "It's a drag to include a scene of anal rape of a 13-year-old in your moody documentary about such a Byronic figure," writes Bill Wyman at Salon. "But it's also fairly relevant,"  More importantly (if we're building this argument around the crimes for which Polanski plead guilty), the film is guilty of some classic misdirects:

it's not just that the details about his life are both irrelevant and not very damning (he may have had sexual relations outside the sacred bounds of matrimony! With two women!), but that the attempt to create hypocrisy where there isn't any plays into the fundamental misdirection of the Polanski camp─i.e.that he was prosecuted for being a European roue just too sexually sophisticated for provincial Americans, not because he raped a 13-year old. (Lawyers, Guns and Money)

What we do know of this case is damning: Polanski pleaded guilty to unlawful sex with a minor, then fled before he could be charged. Was the judge illegally influenced? Most likely. Was he obsessed with celebrities? Who cares? Polanski a talented man with a difficult past? Of course. But that doesn't change the crime. And as far as rape and criminal cases go, there is a lot less ambiguity here than most.

But he's a genius! This is censorship.

Being a good artist is not synonymous with being a good person; excusing someone's actions because of their art is no way to run a just country. Kanye West is a genius, and America went wild when he interrupted Taylor Swift. Polanski Good art does not justify misogyny─or at least, it shouldn't, according Melissa McEwain's article in The Guardian:

We have long prioritised men's art over women's safety, because there is a belief that a talented man, an auteur with a vision, might change the world, and to truncate that grand possibility with something as bourgeois as justice would be devastating.

The irony, of course, is that failing to hold a rapist accountable for his crime doesn't change the world at all─it merely perpetuates a status quo in which most rapists are not identified; of those who are, few are charged, and of those who are charged, vanishingly few are convicted.

Or as my friend Matt noted on Facebook, "If he makes movies in prison, I'll watch them on my Netflix."

And Harding, writing this time for Jezebel, notes that:

If I were a creative professional, I'd certainly be concerned about the authorities coming after me and my work! Except, I a creative professional, and I'm not worried, because unlike Roman Polanski, I have neither raped a child nor jumped bail and evaded capture for three decades. See how that works? Don't rape a child and flee sentencing for it: Enjoy your personal and artistic freedom! Rape a child and flee: Get arrested! (Eventually.)

But the timing is super suspect. The government has had 30 years to pick him up. Why now?

Polanski spent most of his time in France, which would not extradite. While he did have a home in Switzerland, U.S. prosecutors would have to prepare paperwork for his arrest and send that paperwork to Switzerland to coincide with his time in the country. The U.S. has tried in the past to do so, but failed, according to the L.A. Times.

On at least two previous occasions, the district attorney’s office has received reports that Polanski had travel arrangements to countries with extradition treaties with the U.S. and prepared paperwork for his arrest, Gibbons said. “But in the end, he apparently found out about it and didn’t go,” she said.

The fact that Polanski made public his plans to travel to Switzerland and receive a lifetime-achievement award gave the U.S. government time to execute the proper extradition paperwork; the fact that Polanski actually went gave the officials the opportunity to execute the arrest. The Times also indicates that Polanski has been less careful about his travels as of late.  After 30 years, his past─and the American justice system─finally caught up with him.

Polanski isn't the first celebrity who thought money and connections made him above the law. Visit our gallery of celeb criminals who had to serve time for their crimes.

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