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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Rule of Law Trampled on the Red Carpet

Director Roman Polanski in France on the set of the 1979 film Tess, following his arrest and flight from U.S. authorities. (Promotional photo from Columbia Pictures)

Roman Polanski has just been freed by Swiss authorities who were detaining him under house arrest. Switzerland decided against extraditing Polanski to California, where the Oscar-winning film director has been wanted since 1978 after he drugged, raped, and sodomized a 13-year-old girl.

Several pundits and a slew of Hollywood glitterati who are friends or wannabe-friends of Polanski have decried his arrest and continuing status as a fugitive.

They point out mitigating circumstances: Polanski lived through the Holocaust, with his father surviving Mauthausen and his mother perishing in Auschwitz. Then in 1969, Polanski's pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered by Charles Manson's followers.

Does Polanski's tragedy-filled life mean we should show him leniency? I don't think so. I think he should spend the rest of his life in prison. But that's not my point here. What saddens me is the contemptuous regard for the rule of law that's been put on display by this debacle.

Arguing for clemency for Polanski is, in my opinion, deeply wrongheaded. But such a position is not beyond all bounds of decency. What is outrageous – actually morally bankrupt – is for people to defend Polanski yet not speak up on behalf of other sexual predators.

It is common that violent and sexual offenders have suffered abuse in their pasts. Many offenders endured lives of utter horror and ceaseless despair before committing the crimes that put them behind bars. If Polanski deserves empathy, why not them? Where are the throngs of adoring celebrities – who gave the absent Polanski a standing ovation at the 2003 Academy Awards – to advocate for pedophile rapists who are poor, unsuccessful, and bereft of artistic talent or handsome charm? 

Our courthouse statuary upholds blind justice as the ultimate virtue. But oh-so many people do not. For the blithe cowards stumping for Polanski, it is natural and right-feeling to balance the scales of justice with eyes wide open. And that's a deep shame.

Posted by Eric E. Johnson on July 14, 2010 at 05:56 PM in Criminal Law, Current Affairs, Film, International Law, Judicial Process | Permalink


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I do not think that the Swiss government's denial of extradition should be viewed as a judgment by the government on the merits or morals of the case. I saw this alluded to before, but it now appears that the reason the Swiss government denied the request was one of process, not substance.

Posted by: Adam Richardson | Jul 15, 2010 1:12:50 PM

I do not accept the underlying premise of Professor Johnson's piece: That there was a party in the right. Polanski was in the wrong, having fled to avoid imposition of a second element of a sentence for a crime to which he pled guilty (although not the crime of "rape" stated in the piece). The extraditing authorities were in the wrong, given their refusal to accept that the combination of the passage of time, the victim's request to leave it be, and their own misconduct (which seems quite apparent and deliberate, even if the details remain somewhat fuzzy).

There is no good, or right, or winner, here.

Posted by: C.E. Petit | Jul 15, 2010 12:17:50 PM

I think the headline goes a bit far. I'm not sure there's any evidence that Switzerland didn't extradite him because he's a famous film director or any of the other "mitigating" circumstances. Certainly the people who advocate on Polanski's behalf (aside from those who are paid to do so, that is) ought to examine their own belief systems, but I think the implication of the headline is that the state is at fault here as well. Maybe I'm misreading it.

Posted by: Jason W. | Jul 14, 2010 6:24:18 PM

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