Much ado about the arrest of film director Roman Polanski on a 32-year-old charge of having sex with a minor. French Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand says that it doesn’t make any sense to “throw him to the lions” because of “ancient history.” Some opinion writers go so far as to term his arrest “outrageous.” Others think it was the right thing to do.
Let’s regain our bearings here. Mr. Polanski, according to news accounts, gave champagne and drugs to a 13-year-old girl and then had sex with her. This is no mere technical, statutory rape — it’s not a case of some 19-year-old boy having consensual sex with his 17-year-old girlfriend. This was a bad act indeed. He pled guilty to a reduced charge and then fled the country when it looked like a judge was not going to go along with a plea bargain that would have had Polanski serving just 42 days in jail. Trying to pass this off as “ancient history” seems a bit much. If we imagine that Polanski were not a famous film director, but some everyday, middle-aged lawyer who seduced a neighbor’s 13-year-old daughter with alcohol and drugs and then had sex with her, I can’t imagine that there would be a lot of sentiment on his side.
As far as I can make out, some people think Polanski should be let off because (a) he’s famous, (b) he’s a great artist, (c) he’s been through a lot in his life, (d) it’s been a long time since he committed the crime, (e) the victim has forgiven him and would rather the whole thing just went away, and (f) there was some governmental misconduct in the initial proceedings.
I would hope we could agree that (a) and (b) are irrelevant. We’ve endured a spate of celebrity crimes. Celebrities don’t have a license to break the laws that the rest of us have to live with. The law should be enforced even-handedly. Of course, the law is generally more lenient on first-time offenders than on habitual criminals, so Polanski is entitled to the same break that any first-time offender who is generally a good person would get. But no break for being a famous artist.
(c) could be relevant — we have taken to considering a defendant’s harsh upbringing when passing sentences — but it doesn’t get him wholly off the hook. At most it gets him a reduction.
(d) is not wholly irrelevant, but it’s mostly Polanski’s own fault. The matter could have been resolved 32 years ago if he hadn’t fled the jurisdiction, and he could have come back to face the music any time.
(e) is also not wholly irrelevant, but it’s not just the victim who needs protection; it’s also other 13-year-olds who need protection from other adults, including other adult celebrities.
(f) is relevant but the judge who engaged in the irregular proceedings has died and another judge will now be making the decisions about Polanski’s fate (assuming he gets extradited). So this issue is reduced.
I conclude that Polanski should face the music. Again, if some 40-something accountant you hadn’t heard of seduced a 13-year-old girl with alcohol and drugs and then had sex with her, and then skipped the country, I don’t think we’d be arguing about whether it’s unfair to catch up with him later and throw him in jail.