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Roman the Rapist

A Commentary By Susan Estrich

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

He had sex with a 13-year-old girl. He got her to go to Jack Nicholson's house by promising that she would be in a photo shoot. When she got there, he fed her a Quaalude and alcohol -- champagne for a 13-year-old, how enticing -- and then he raped her.

Roman Polanski was on his way to a film festival in which he was to be honored for his life's work when he was arrested last weekend. Some 100 European big shots have released a statement in protest: "Filmmakers in France, in Europe, in the United States and around the world are dismayed by this decision. It seems inadmissible to them that an international cultural event, paying homage to one of the greatest contemporary filmmakers, is used by the police to apprehend him."

I've got news for the big shots: International cultural events are not safe havens for criminals, nor is there any reason they should be. A criminal is a criminal, even if he is "one of the greatest contemporary filmmakers." There's nothing "inadmissible" about it, guys.

His lawyer in France is even more strident: "There is no reason, either in law or in fact, nor on the terrain of the most elementary justice, to keep Roman Polanski in prison for even one day," Herve Temime told reporters.

Maybe I can help Mr. Temime a little bit here, with some law and some facts, and some elementary justice.

The reason to keep him in prison for far more than one day is that he's a rapist who fled from justice. Actually, that's two reasons, and each is sufficient.

Roman the Rapist pleaded guilty. This is not one of those stories where you need to insert an "alleged" or a "purported" before each sentence. This is not a "he said-she said." He was in his 40s. She was 13. He was a famous director. She was a child. He lied, lured and plied her with drugs and alcohol.

How about those facts, Mr. Temime?

Interviewed not long ago, the girl, now a woman, said she wanted to put the whole thing behind her. The rapist's "sympathizers" (that's what the press calls them) think that is enough. Wrong again.

Rape is a crime against the state, as well as a civil wrong against the individual. The victim is free not to pursue damages. That is her decision. Where victims refuse to cooperate, it is often difficult or impossible to secure a conviction, but cooperation is not a legal requirement. The state presses charges, not the victim. Polanski pleaded guilty to a crime against the state. It was "People v. Polanski." The People -- in this case represented by the district attorney of Los Angeles -- are not putting the whole thing behind them. Rightly so.

Polanski pleaded guilty assuming he wouldn't go to prison. I don't have any idea why a famous director who raped a 13-year-old after plying her with drugs and alcohol would assume that no punishment was in order, but he did. Celebrity justice maybe? Who knows and who cares?

When reality intervened and it became clear that a judge might well sentence him to time in prison, Polanski did not seek to withdraw his guilty plea and go to trial. He did not await the sentence and then appeal it. Free on bail pending sentencing, he decided to thumb his nose at the American justice system and flee the country. Fleeing from justice violates the "most elementary" principles of our legal system, to quote the misinformed Mr. Temime. It's every bit as serious as raping a 13-year-old.

For the past 30 years, Roman Polanski has been not just a convicted rapist but a fugitive from justice.

Yes, he's made some big films in those years. So what?

Yes, he's traveled freely across Europe during those years, living a very fancy and famous life without being arrested. So what?

There is no statute of limitations on fugitives.

The fact that he got away with it this long is not a reason to declare him innocent. He is a guilty man who fled from justice. It is time, past time, that he was returned.

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