Roman Polanski’s recent arrest at the Zurich Film Festival in Switzerland has ignited a firestorm of reactions. No one denies that he drugged and raped a 13-year-old girl in 1977, or that he has had an active warrant for his arrest since 1978. But people are still arguing there are a myriad of reasons why 76-year-old Polanski is the real victim and should be left alone.
Calling Polanski a victim denies the fact Polanski has been a fugitive for over 20 years. Calling Polanski a victim minimizes the severity of what he did to Samantha Geimer, now an adult with children of her own and the desire to move on with her life.
It is chilling to watch Hollywood take up arms against Polanski’s detention. Where are people getting the idea that great artistry permits people to avoid serving time for committing horrific crimes?
Academic elites reacted similarly to the arrest of African-American studies professor Henry “Skip” Gates, focusing less on the the arrest in the context of the situation and more on the outrage of a well-liked black professor being arrested at all.
Newsflash to the elite and creative, the talented and educated, the rich and revered: great people can do bad things and can go in front of the justice system to determine their innocence or guilt like anyone else. These celebrity-fueled defenses show how thoroughly society has digested the idea of all criminals being heinous, untalented, unintelligent and unredeemable monsters who prey on law-abiding citizens.
People can have histories of doing horrible things and wonderful things; that’s a part of being human. Pointing to Polanski’s celebrity as a great director and auteur who expects excellence from his actors has absolutely nothing to do with the fact he drugged and raped 13-year-old girl and fled from the country to escape punishment. Polanski’s awards cannot atone for his crime. Only Polanski the man can do that.
The best place for people to try to redeem Polanski’s character for committing rape would have been a criminal trial or a sentencing hearing. But Polanski pled guilty rather than sit through a trial, and he fled the country before presenting a defense at a sentencing hearing. If these actors and artists truly care about and respect Polanski, they should convince him to come back to California and find a resolution for this chapter of his life and his victim’s life.
Comedienne and actress Whoopi Goldberg has claimed Polanski did not commit “rape-rape” and it was likely something else because of his plea bargain. She claims that she dislikes it when people are passionate about what someone has done and all the facts have not been presented. Goldberg’s comments really bring the idea of rape culture home, where people create grey areas, arbitrary lines, and hysteria accusations to downplay the seriousness of rape and sexual assault.
I do think people should look at the facts, and the website The Smoking Gun has shared the grand jury transcript with Geimer’s testimony and Polanski’s plea agreement that reduced Polanski’s charge of rape to “unlawful sexual intercourse with a female person under the age of 18” and required him to subject to psychological screening to determine if he was a “mentally disordered sex offender.” The attorneys reached the agreement upon realizing that subjecting a teenage victim to a media brigade during what could have been an overexposed child rape case would be damaging to her recovery.
Polanski served a total of 42 days in jail while cooperating with the agreement. When it appeared to Polanski that the judge would renege on the deal and sentence him to more time, he fled to France and the state of California filed its arrest warrant against him in 1978.
Let me make this clear. I don’t care if Roman Polanski perfectly recreated the Sistine Chapel using uncooked macaroni. I don’t care if Roman Polanski is responsible for erecting Stonehenge. I don’t care how many films Roman Polanski has done or how many honors he has received. I don’t care how long it took California and the United States to act.
Nothing outweighs the fact that when Roman Polanski was 44 years old, he was convicted for drugging and raping then-13-year-old Samantha Geimer. And he evaded the proceedings by fleeing to France, where he has lived and been celebrated by the Western world for decades. His status as a fugitive has not halted his career as a director, and he has received accolades for films such as Rosemary’s Baby and The Pianist. Polanski is a good director. No one disputes his directorial accolades. But Polanski as a person has no excuse for running away from his punishment. He should come back and face the court.
In the years following the testimony and Polanski’s conviction, the victim sent two letters to the district attorneys responsible for the case, one in 1997 and one recently. The letters both request that Polanski be allowed to settle the legal matter according to the plea bargaining agreement reached. Geimer has also previously argued his criminal justice proceedings should not affect award determinations for his movies. I agree with Geimer. Polanski should be judged on his art for its own sake. And Polanski should come back to the United States and be judged on the criminal proceedings he left unfinished in 1977. They are mutually exclusive.
It disgusts me that people are taking Polanski’s arrest as an opportunity to criticize the faults of criminal investigation of sex crimes and its bureaucracy. Bureaucratic incompetence in the criminal justice system is unworthy of comment by Hollywood when it affects people in lower classes, people of color, people addicted to drugs, and people with mental illnesses. But when the system goes after a celebrated white male artist, the gloves come off and the bureaucracy of the criminal justice system is egregiously insufficient.
A 2004 study conducted by the University of Michigan revealed that from 1989 to 2004, there were 328 exonerations based on DNA evidence, the majority of which were murder and rape cases. More than half the cases resulted in sentences for innocent people exceeding 10 years. I would love to see Hollywood go to bat for DNA exoneration groups like The Sentencing Project or get involved in comprehensive prison reform legislation. In that way, Hollywood would actually confront the way the criminal justice system manipulates people of all stripes through plea-bargaining and persuade investigators to make sure they are pursuing the right person with all the resources available to them. Instead, Hollywood personalities are asking the criminal justice system to ensure that celebrated white male artists are entitled to stand above the law and live in comfort. That is unacceptable and goes against the principles for equality under the law for all.
It equally disgusts me to see the claim that Polanski will not receive a fair trial. Roman Polanski jeopardized his own opportunity for fair judgment when he fled the United States in 1977. If he were concerned about a particular judge, an arresting officer, a rogue detective, he could have used his ample means to file an appeal like any other person. Instead he fled from his punishment. That fact he chose to run is also unacceptable.
Roman Polanski is an intelligent and creative man. He is also a fugitive. If he wants his ordeal with the California criminal justice system to end, he must face his sentencing and pursue his fight here. If he has valid charges against investigators of his 1977 case, he should keep fighting. If he has grounds for getting the case thrown out, he should keep fighting. Ultimately, he needs to stop running for that fight to happen with any legitimacy, and people need to stop pretending Polanski’s luxury to evade justice for over two decades is a good thing. It is time for Polanski to take responsibility and return to the United States court system so this case may close for good.