In 1977, Roman Polanski was arrested on multiple charges arising out of alleged sexual acts between him and a thirteen-year-old girl. Polanski pled guilty to the charge of unlawful sexual intercourse, California’s equivalent to statutory rape, admitting to the underlying elements of the crime. After pleading guilty to this one charge, but before being sentenced, Polanski chose to flee the United States.
Statutory rape is a crime with deep roots in common law. It is premised on the reasoning that children may not consent to sexual activity. Historically, this law protected the father’s interest in his daughter’s chastity before marriage. In 1977, unlawful sexual intercourse only applied when the victim was an underage female. Today, we argue that children, whether boys or girls, lack the competency to be able to consent to sexual activity. It is irrelevant whether a child expresses a desire to have sex or dresses in a provocative manner. Adults are expected to control themselves.
Modern criminal law rests on the foundation that a criminal violates the law through a criminal act and the intent to commit that act. As a society we feel uncomfortable punishing an individual unless both elements are present. However, statutory rape is one of the few remaining crimes that does not require specific intent. An adult may legally have sex with another willing adult. An adult may not legally have sex with a child, even if the adult believes the child to be an adult. For public policy reasons, the state and society in general has a strong interest in enforcing statutory rape laws, despite the lack of criminal intent. Otherwise, defendants could avoid criminal liability by claiming the victim ‘looked eighteen.’
This is an easy case for statutory rape, even if one ignores the evidence that Polanski allegedly gave the girl alcohol and quaaludes before the acts in question. Polanski, a forty-two-year old man, admitted to having sex with a thirteen-year-old girl. She was under the age of consent, which was, and still is, eighteen. Polanski knew the victim and could not have believed her to be an adult. The difference in power between a young thirteen-year-old aspiring actress and a world-renowned director justifies State action to protect young girls.
Polanski pled guilty to statutory rape. I have not heard him dispute that he engaged in sexual activities with the girl. I have heard arguments that he was denied justice in the initial proceedings. There are accusations that the judge, who has since passed away and therefore is unavailable to defend himself, acted inappropriately. However, even if that was true, Polanski had the same legal options available to every other defendant. He could have filed for an appeal. Instead, he fled to France, and later began a relationship with a 15-year-old girl, Nastassja Kinski. While Polanski has since settled his civil lawsuit with the victim, he has yet to answer for his crime(s) against society. Whatever value he has given the world as an artist and whatever personal tragedies he has suffered, Polanski is not above the law and should be held accountable like everyone else.
The arrest of Roman Polanski in Switzerland at the request of U.S. authorities has drawn a hail of protest from a colourful group of characters that includes Hollywood stars and French presidents. A lot of these protests are based on arguments that fail to address the reality of the case or that are simply feeble. This does not mean, however, that there are not very serious and telling arguments against him being extradited.
The fact that Polanski is a septuagenarian; that he has suffered more than his fair share of tragedy; that California was a different, more permissive, place in the 1970s; or that an artist of his calibre is above the normal constraints of society are, at best, mitigating circumstances, but none of them are valid arguments against Polanski being returned to the United States to face sentencing in the first place. Even pseudo-legal comments about statutes of limitation are meaningless: the U.S. has no statute of limitations on crimes committed against minors and, even if it did, such a limitation would be meaningless since Polanski has already been convicted.
It is vitally important to set out the limits of the argument here. Polanski faces possible extradition to the United States so that he can be sentenced for a crime he was convicted of more than 30 years ago. There may or may not be mitigating circumstances to be taken into account before sentencing, there may or may not have been malpractice in the original trial, but none of this is relevant at this stage. What is relevant is the suspicion that the timing of his arrest is evidence that the U.S. legal system is being manipulated in this case and, therefore, that its actions in regard to Mr. Polanski are tainted and unsustainable.
Timing is the critical issue here. Why was Polanski arrested now? We know the United States is capable of extraordinarily “rendering” and holding individuals merely suspected of involvement in crime, regardless of extradition treaties, so are we really supposed to believe that the most powerful nation on Earth has simply been incapable of laying its hands on a self-confessed felon who has been living in plain sight in Western Europe for the past three decades? It just does not wash. Polanski was not arrested now because this was the first opportunity to arrest him, he was arrested now because now is when it suits somebody’s self-serving agenda to do so. Exactly whose agenda, and exactly what that agenda is, has not yet become clear, but I’m more than confident that it will.
That there is a hidden agenda behind the decision to pursue Polanski now is surely beyond question. There is simply no other rational explanation for such sudden and dramatic action on a case that could have been dealt with years or even decades ago. Polanski’s fame, the very fact that must disqualify him from any kind of special treatment, cannot at the same time be allowed to become the glitter on somebody’s self-serving campaign.
The final word can go to the victim, who said recently “No matter what his crime, Polanski is entitled to be treated fairly; he was not.”