Thursday, October 1, 2009

Excusing Polanski?

Robert Harris, in the New York Times today, protests the arrest of director Roman Polanski.

If you aren't familiar with the case, Polanski drugged and raped a 13 year old girl in 1977. He was initially charged with rape by use of drugs, perversion, sodomy, lewd and lascivious act upon a child under 14, and furnishing a controlled substance (methaqualone) to a minor. (Original indictment can be found here.)

In exchange for a guilty plea, these charges were somehow reduced to the single, lesser charge of engaging in unlawful intercourse with a minor. Polanski apparently believed that he would receive only probation for this crime, and when he realized that the judge intended to give him jail time, he fled the country. He has since continued his successful film career in Europe, but has remained a United States fugitive for the past 32 years. Last week, on his way to an awards ceremony in Switzerland, he was arrested by Swiss authorities and is being held for extradition hearings.

His friend, Robert Harris, is incensed.

Let's examine his arguments, and see if they hold water.

First, he says that no one has ever really tried very hard to catch Polanski, and so it's outrageous that they should do so now.

This argument is a non-sequitur. They should have caught him years ago. They didn't. So what? They caught him now. The irrelevance of this statement is self-evident on its face.

So it seems fair to deduce that the capture of Mr. Polanski — who has never been accused of similar offenses before 1977 or since — was an understandably low priority for the California criminal justice system, a system so short of money, that a court ordered it to release 40,000 convicts early because of prison overcrowding.

It's also irrelevant that he has not been accused of other similar crimes. The LA County District Attorney is not extraditing him for other crimes. It is extraditing him for raping a 13 year old girl. And imprisoning someone for as heinous a crime as that should absolutely be a priority for the California prison system. Especially when you consider that the convicts they are releasing early have actually spent time in prison for their crimes, which Polanski has not, and that many of them are there for drug offenses for which there were no victims.

I suspect that this peculiar standoff — of sporadic, bureaucratic twitchings to remind the world that Mr. Polanski was still a fugitive, but no serious attempts at arrest — would have continued had it not been for Marina Zenovich’s 2008 documentary, “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired.”

So he got away with rape, until someone made a movie about how he got away with rape. When the movie drew attention to his crime, he was arrested, as he should have been before. And this is somehow an excuse?

The almost pornographic relish with which his critics are retelling the lurid details of the assault (strange behavior, one might think, for those who profess concern for the victim) makes it hard to consider the case rationally.

It's apparently making it hard for Harris to consider this case rationally. He's arguing that we should just forget the whole thing, because the victim doesn't want to rehash it, and because Polanski doesn't want to go to jail, and because (with your best British accent here) the whole damn thing is just so unpleasant, don't you see?

Harris and others have excused Polanski's flight, saying that he had believed he would not get prison, but fled when he found out he might. How detached from reality do you need to be to believe you can drug and rape a 13 year old, and not go to jail?

Here is what Harris' argument boils down to: He and Polanski both belong to the same upper class. The rules just don't really apply to them. Distasteful and unpleasant things just shouldn't happen to them. And for the last 32 years, they haven't. But this week, finally, a step has been taken to right that wrong.

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