On August 1977, I decided to write a feature about the media glare focused on the courtroom where I’d usually been the only reporter around before Roman Polanski put in an appearance.
With the world-acclaimed director scheduled to appear for trial on charges of sodomizing and drugging a 13-year-old Valley girl, Department D. of the Santa Monica Superior Court would be a focus of the Western world’s attention.
The case had everything: Sex, drugs, a Holocaust survivor defendant who’d lost his wife and unborn child to the most ghoulish clan of murderers ever seen in modern California, plus the added frisson of a confrontation that would embody all the dynamics of the culture wars.
And I was sitting in the catbird’s seat, the only reporter who knew the legal players, including the judge, Laurence J. Rittenband, who would ultimately derail everything, keeping the case and the moment alive until, well, right now.
In those more innocent days, before the rise of the Internet, Tweets, instant messaging, and all the rest, the psychodrama was acted out on television screens, in talk show broadcasts, and on the pages of a gamut of print media, ranging from staid gray columns of newsprint to the lurid covers of tabloids and magazines.
While the tabloids and celebrity mags cooked up some howlers, they pale by comparison with today’s Internet world, where I’ve been following this latest iteration of The Case That Will Not Die to the point of printing our a few thousand pages of blog posts and largely anonymous comments.
The range of outright ignorance astounds me. For someone who knows the case intimately [to the point of having testified in court before the implosion], what the online world offers about the case of People v. Roman Polanski has much more to say about the ongoing cultural wars than it does about the case itself.
The latest major development, the one which may have put the quietus to the effort to repunish Polanski [and yes, he was punished].
When Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf announced Monday that she was refusing the U.S. request to return the director to the capricious ministrations of the California courts and a Los Angeles County District Attorney currently in the midst of a run for higher office, she raised all the right questions.
First and foremost, she hadn’t seen conclusive proof that Polanski hadn’t already served his sentence. Her office later cited the refusal of folks on this side of the pond to send the transcripts of a secret court hearing featuring Roger Gunson, the former Deputy District Attorney who conducted the prosecution.
That leaves Gunson’s interviews in Marina Zenovich’s documentary Roman Polanski, Wanted and Desired, as the best evidence for any journalist writing about the case, and there Gunson makes clear that the judge breached a plea agreement which included prison time already served by Polanski under the guise of a 42-day psychiatric evaluation.
My own appearance in the film establishes that Judge Rittenband had illegally sought advice on what he could do that would leave him with the best possible media image, while his judicial obligation was to make a determination based solely on the law and the facts presented to him through the criminal justice process.
But does any of this play any role in the current media furor?
Instead, the media milieu and the blogosphere is rife with animus. Here at esnl, one of my previous posts elicited a comment that contained an implicit death threat aimed at the director. At least I know who sent it, which is something that I can’t say about 99 percent of the comments I’ve found online.
Here’re some examples:
- I have been reading and following the media about “Mr. Polanski” being in jail and I threw up when I heard commentaries like those of “Ms. Debra Tate” and all the hollywood people who think they have no rules and regulations and laws. They only have their own laws. They make them up as they go. I would like to ask “Ms. Whoopi Goldberg”, “Ms. Debra Tate” “Mr. Michael [sic] Scorcese” and all the others who are backing this animal, “WHAT IF IT HAPPENED TO ONE OF YOUR CHILDREN WHAT WOULD YOU DO?” WOULD YOU GLORIFY THE PREDATOR? I DON’T THINK SO!!!!!
- We probably should be aware that the people who are defending Polanski most loudly, by and large, are people who probably spent formative years in the same micro-cultural power structure and system that probably led to the intial rape.
- He confessed. He was convicted and fled the country to escape sentencing. I don’t get why people keep talking about how “complicated” the case is. It’s jut fucking not complicated.
- Hell, I don’t even care if anyone “still likes” his movies. His MOVIES didn’t rape anyone and then “suffer” in exile as a millionaire in Europe. JUST QUIT EXCUSING HIS CRIMES WITH HIS “ART,” FOR THE LOVE OF GOD!
- The *only* reason this “old” case is being “dredged back up” is because the fucking perp fled motherfucking justice after raping a child.
- Polanski’s refusal to face up to the charges and subsequent decision to flee the country, is the reason she’s still having to hear the accounts.
- It’s disgusting to think we are expected to let Polanski go simply because time has passed. He raped a child, he should be punished.
- I hope the charges do not get dropped. Like enty said, that just means it’s OK for rich, famous people to commit crimes and never have to pay for them. I don’t care how long it has been, he had sex with a child, and he should be punished.
- In my opinion, Polanski made a mockery of the legal system in LA County and California .. granted that is apparently not all that hard if you are a celebrity.
- Roman Polanski needs to share a prison cell with Charlie Manson and find out why rape is illegal
- if polanski had acted like a man 32 years ago this would have been over and done with then. HE is the reason she is still dealing with this. First he raped her then screwed her by fleeing for 32 years.
- “Have we really gotten so STUPID and TWISTED that we care what the CRIMINAL says he was doing? and do we REALLY think a 45 day stay in jail makes up for RAPING a child? Polanski was afraid he wouldn’t get a FAIR TRIAL? hmmm ISN’T THAT WHAT ALL CRIMINALS SAY? I’m going to go bang my head on the floor..makes more sense than defending a RAPIST.”
- Didn’t this scum bag was released on bail in US while back to escape to Europe and now they put him in same position…..right well I guess if you rich globally that means you don’t have to stand trial for your crimes….wow good lesson to all the kids out their….
- Free to molest again at last! Now, where’s the closest Swiss schoolyard? No, wait let’s stop at that liquor store first, it’s easier when the child is drunk, heh-heh.
And then there was Cokie Roberts, who propounded her vision of justice from the bully pulpit of ABC Television:
“He raped and drugged and raped and sodomized a child. And then was a fugitive from justice. As far as I’m concerned, just take him out and shoot him.”
[Wait, she issues a fatwa and still has a job and they fired Helen Thomas?]
Then there’s another category, which ranges the gamut from pro- to vehemently anti-Polanski but change the game by blaming the victim or her mother. Those I won’t dignify by reprinting them here.
But the mainstream media have jumped the shark as well, starting with the Washngton Post editorial I dissected earlier.
Editorial indiscretions, written Rohrschachs
The folks who have no excuse for their ignorance are the editorial writers at America’s newspapers. Of the dozen or so editorials I found on the case, only one writer grasped the ambiguity of the case. All the others used the occasion to harrumph about the undisputed evils of rape [no problem] and the perfidy of the Swiss [real problem].
But then it’s easy to feign high dudgeon about a nefarious director than it is to thoughtfully examine the way to California judicial system was perverted by a raging egomanic on the bench, a judge whose best friend was mob frontman Sid Korshak [whose name is never mentioned in stories about the judge, save here at esnl].
Starting close to home, here’s an excerpt of the Fresno Bee’s editorial, headlined Polanski must stop running from his crime :
The government of Switzerland has now become a co-conspirator in Roman Polanski’s successful quest to avoid justice. Polanski pleaded guilty in 1977 to having unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl, but instead of accepting his punishment, the film director fled the country. Swiss officials don’t seem to have a problem with Polanski dodging American authorities, refusing Monday to extradite him to the United States.
This is a simple issue, even though Swiss authorities attempted to cite legal questions as part of their justification in not extraditing Polanski. He should be returned to Los Angeles to allow the justice system to determine an appropriate punishment. That punishment should include a substantial enhancement for fleeing the country.
It is an outrage that Polanski can live freely in parts of Europe without paying for his very serious crime in the United States.
Let’s not forget that Polanski committed an even worse crime than he was allowed to plead to during his Los Angeles court proceedings more than three decades ago. By cutting a deal with prosecutors, Polanski was not charged with drugging and raping the 13-year-old girl. But he fled anyway, fearing that the judge would give him a stiffer sentence than what he’d been promised by prosecutors.
There’s no doubt that the Oscar-winning director, now 76, has used his fame to dodge justice.
The Swiss cited “legal reasons.” Right. And good ones.
As the Associated Press reported, “Swiss Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf said extradition had to be rejected ‘considering the persisting doubts concerning the presentation of the facts of the case.’”
Referring to the repressed testimony of Roger Gunson, the Swiss justice ministry had this to say to the AP:
The testimony “should prove” that Polanski actually served his sentence while undergoing a court-ordered diagnostic study after charges were filed, the Swiss Justice Ministry said.
“If this were the case, Roman Polanski would actually have already served his sentence and therefore both the proceedings on which the U.S. extradition request is founded and the request itself would have no foundation,” the ministry said. They also noted that Polanski’s victim, Samantha Geimer, has repeatedly asked that the case be dropped.“
Ah, those inconvenient “technicalities.”
The Los Angeles Times, unable to resist the cutesy headline, editorialized “The Swiss miss on Roman Polanski.” Here’s the meat from their effort:
Switzerland’s primary rationalization was that the judge in Polanski’s case may have reneged on a promise that the director would serve only 42 days in a prison psychiatric unit. “It is not possible to exclude with the necessary certainty,” the Swiss justice department said, “that Roman Polanski has already served the sentence he was condemned to.” The department noted that it couldn’t be sure because it had been denied sealed testimony by a former prosecutor that might have corroborated that assertion.
But that’s an issue that should have been dealt with by an inquiry in an American court once Polanski was back in the United States. Switzerland’s proper role was not to consider the underlying facts of a sentence but to return a fugitive from justice.
As if they realized their claim was unconvincing, the Swiss also said that under international law, extradition requests must be acted on in “good faith.” Doing so, the department said, required taking into account the fact that the United States waited years to file a formal request for Polanski to be taken into custody. That delay supposedly justified Polanski’s expectation that he wouldn’t be arrested if he attended a film festival in Zurich.
It’s hard to resist concluding that Polanski’s celebrity played a role in his rescue from a legal accounting in the United States. Would a fugitive who wasn’t a gifted director provoke musings about the dictates of “international public order”? Or the conclusion that, just because he hadn’t been apprehended so far, he had a legitimate expectation that he would remain free forever? It seems the Swiss may share the moral myopia that has made Polanski an object of sympathy throughout Europe. ( France’s culture minister said the pursuit of Polanski was evidence of “a scary America.”)
First, the Times is saying it’s not a “scary America?” where human rights have fallen by the wayside? Haven’t they read the PATRIOT Act. Or the presidential claim to the right to kill any American citizen deemed an enemy of the people without trial or even a review by some judicial authority?
Second, and more to the point, the Times seems to argue that anyone should be extradited anytime the U.S. demands, regardless of the law of the nation where the would-be extraditee is being held.
Obviously, the only explanation is that the Swiss suffer from “moral myopia!”
Back in September after Polanski was arrested by the Swiss, the New York Times chimed in with this:
There was something strange about the Swiss deciding to arrest the director now, after having let him freely move in and out of the country for three decades. And a 2008 documentary by Marina Zenovich, “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired,” raised some troubling questions about the bizarre way a celebrity-hungry judge in California, Laurence Rittenband, handled the case.
Yet where is the injustice in bringing to justice someone who pleads guilty to statutory rape and then goes on the lam, no matter how talented he may be?
The Times conveniently forgets that Polanski not only plead guilty, but he also served the term greed in the plea bargain the judge had approved. Polanski didn’t just plea and go “on the lam.” He entered his plea, then went to prison, fulfilling the plea agreement. The whole diagnostic pretense was just that, a sham. It was the prison sentence Polanski agreed to. He did the crime, then did the time. Period.
After this week’s Swiss decision, the Dallas News editorialized thusly:
“Swiss officials can cite legal technicalities all they wish, but the plain fact is that by refusing to extradite celebrated filmmaker Roman Polanski, they let a guilty man go free. Polanski, accused of using champagne and half a Quaalude to drug a 13-year-old before forcing her to have sex, was indicted on six felony counts and eventually pleaded guilty to unlawful sex with a minor. He fled the U.S. in 1978, rather than face a judge for sentencing.”
Ditto. And does this mean that the next tine a Dallas cops tells a News he can’t photograph something, they’ll just write it off as “a technicality?” Inquiring minds want to know.
One of the more breathtakingly ignorant statements came from the editorial board at the New York Daily News just after the September arrest:
What’s shocking is that so many notables would rise up to defend a man guilty of such reprehensible behavior. And their attempted excuses for Polanski – His mother died in the Holocaust! His wife was murdered by the Manson family! It wasn’t the girl’s first time anyway! – are stomach-turning.
Central to Polanski’s claim to martyrdom is an HBO documentary, “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired.” The film suggests that the judge and prosecutors engaged in misconduct, in effect, deceiving him into taking a plea. Perhaps that’s the case. If so, he has a clear option: Stand trial and face the full weight of the law.
Stand trial? He already plead guilty and served his sentence. The only issue before any court is formal sentencing, so where does a trial miraculously appear.
And if there were, by some miracle of law, to be a trial, there’d be no case, because the only other witness to the events made clear from the start that she wouldn’t testify. But hey, that’s just one of them legal technicalities, right?
Then, after the Swiss decision this week, the Daily News editorialized:
This is a crime for which American prosecutors are still trying to seek justice – only to be thwarted at every turn by an on-the-lam Polanski and his simpering apologists.
They say it is 33 years later, as though justice for rape has an expiration date. They say Polanski’s victim does not support prosecution. They say Polanski was led to believe he would be free after serving only a short stint for a guilty plea of unlawful sex. They say he fled the country when it appeared that the judge (now dead) reversed course and chose to keep him behind bars longer.
Questionable behavior by a judge does not invalidate an underlying crime.
If Roman Polanski were the name of an ordinary American citizen, or a schoolteacher, or a Catholic priest, he would be pursued even to his grave. Most certainly if he were a priest.
Instead, talented, famous Roman Polanski has an army of admirers.
Ignored again: The judge “changed his mind” after Polanski had served his sentence. But, hey, let’s not let facts get in the way of a good but legally dubious editorial.
Surprisingly, the one ray of light in the editorial morass of ill-illumined ignorance shines forth from the editorial page of the Observer-Reporter of Washington, Pennsylvania.
The editorial, “Chasing Polanski a fruitless pursuit,” reaches a conclusion that strikes home:
One factor in the decision was the refusal of U.S. authorities to meet a Swiss request for transcripts of secret testimony from the prosecutor who handled the initial case against Polanski.
“The Swiss could not have found a smaller hook on which to hang their hat,”” fumed Steve Cooley, who is the current Los Angeles County district attorney and a candidate for state attorney general.
But, the point is, U.S. authorities provided that hook, and some of the blame for Polanski’s renewed freedom lies with them.
There is ample evidence, supported by more than one court decision, that Polanski was the victim of judicial misconduct. That, added to the fact that his victim opposes any further prosecution, might be argument enough for U.S. authorities to drop this case.
Polanski has spent 32 years looking over his shoulder, and he can never escape the stain of being a child molester. Perhaps that should, after all these years and consideration of the other circumstances, be considered punishment enough.
So three cheers for the community paper who got it right!
Editorial cartoonists have also weighed in, and while I don’t necessarily agree with the premise of the Washington Examiner‘s Nate Beeler, I admire the execution of what he’s titled Roman Polanski Noir:
[And finally, there's Whoppi Goldberg, who's sprung to the defense of both Raymond Polanski and Mel Gibson, an odd pairing indeed. Of such complexity, esnl has nothing to say.]