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Tom Head

In Defense of the Polanski Arrest

By September 28, 2009

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Roman Polanski was finally arrested this weekend in Switzerland, and will face charges for drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl in 1977. Ordinarily I would say "allegedly," but I don't have to in this case; he pled guilty, and has never disputed the charges. (You can read the original grand jury testimony here, but I warn you that it is (a) graphic and (b) depressing.)

Much of the blogosphere is up in arms about the arrest. I'm not, because the fact that he has gotten away with what he did for decades is an example of reverse profiling; instead of being targeted for being poor, brown, and marginalized, he has been protected for being wealthy, fair-skinned, and popular.

And none of the arguments against Polanski's prosecution are particularly convincing from a civil liberties perspective. Yes, the survivor, now 45, has forgiven him. That is her right; nobody should criticize her for it. And this would be the end of the story if this were a civil proceeding, where she would be the plaintiff. But criminal trials are not based strictly on the idea of retribution and compensation, like civil trials are; they're based on restoration and deterrent effect. She should not be forced to participate in the trial, but if there is still a viable case, the criminal justice system is doing its job by prosecuting a sexual predator. One of the benefits of the way our criminal justice system handles domestic violence and sexual assault claims is that it does not force the survivor to stand as accuser. That role is filled by the state, acting in the state's interests, which provides a necessary buffer between the survivor and the assailant. The assailant stands condemned, in the parlance of the court, by "The People."

Another argument, featured in a recent Washington Post column by Anne Applebaum, is that "Polanski did not know [his target's] real age." Well, given that he had asked her mother for permission to conduct a photo shoot, he presumably knew she was a minor. But even if he somehow didn't, assuming her contemporaneous account of the assault is accurate (and, again, this has never been seriously disputed), he drugged her with alcohol and Quaaludes until she was unable to resist, ignored the fact that she verbally asked him to stop, and sexually assaulted her. This would have been horrific even if she were an adult, and it is difficult to see how Polanski could have believed that she was.

We're supposed to sympathize with Polanski because he led a very difficult life. As Applebaum puts it:

Polanski's mother died in Auschwitz. His father survived Mauthausen. He himself survived the Krakow ghetto, and later emigrated from communist Poland. His pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered in 1969 by the followers of Charles Manson...

That's hard to contemplate. That's hard to absorb. I can't imagine what going through all of that might do to somebody's mind. But we're all products of our biology and our environment. We all have things in our past, or in our makeup, that make up who we are and lead us to do the things we do. No human behavior, no matter how horrible, falls outside of this dynamic. These are explanations; they are not excuses. And the fact that Polanski's explanations are tragic, that any decent person will feel some sympathy for what he has had to go through, does not erase his crime.

Roman Polanski is a convicted sex offender who has lived on the run for over three decades. A less wealthy and influential man might have spent those three decades in prison instead of making films that have been, by most accounts, some of the greatest of the twentieth century. That's a lucky break for the film industry, but a stain on our criminal justice system. He should be extradited to the United States, and he should spend some time in prison. He'll only get a slap on the wrist--that's one of the benefits of being Roman Polanski. But if the concept of equal justice means anything to us, he should at least get that much.

Related: Roman Polanski Arrested in Switzerland


September 28, 2009 at 8:40 am
(1) cynic says:

1. Given the number of people on death row, who turns out to be completely innocent, it is really hard to trust American justice system.

2. Now it is time for Switzerland to provide USA list of thousands of rich people who evaded taxes. Unless the Polanski’s arrest is intended as a diversion.

3. Broken California with jail population crisis goes after 76 years old Polanski for 30+ years old crime? Sounds like somebody plans to run for office. Wouldn’t be public money better spend to fight real public threats?

September 28, 2009 at 8:57 am
(2) Tom Head says:

1. Polanski pled guilty, and has never denied his guilt.

2. Property crimes are less serious than rape, and the fact that so many people are untroubled by Polanski’s crime speaks volumes about the necessity that it be prosecuted. If raping a 13-year-old is supposed to be no big deal, that’s a problem.

3. The same argument could be made against the prosecutions of Byron de la Beckwith, Edgar Ray Killen, and other white supremacists who got away with murder during the civil rights era but were prosecuted late in life. The fact that he has gotten away with rape for over 30 years does not make him innocent. It just makes him hard to catch.

September 28, 2009 at 10:09 am
(3) Kristina says:

Thank you for such a thoughtful, well-reasoned piece.

September 28, 2009 at 2:30 pm
(4) Bonny says:

Fantastic post Tom.

I think that if you removed the name Roman Polanski and inserted someone, anyone else’s name that wasn’t a celebrity, the story would be different. Whether or not he stands trial, running away from an admitted rape for 30 years isn’t ok. And although I applaud his victim’s ability to forgive the man, it doesn’t take away the fact that he did the crime.

Then again, if a person killed another human being, admitted it but ran from authorities, then was arrested 30 years after the fact, how would the blogosphere debates differ?

September 28, 2009 at 5:36 pm
(5) Nadra says:

I am absolutely sickened by all of the people who are defending a man who drugged, raped and sodomized a 13-year-old. One filmmaker even referred to it as a “minor crime.” Since, when is rape and sodomy of a child minor?

September 28, 2009 at 6:02 pm
(6) Tom Head says:


I like to tell myself that most of the people defending Polanski are not aware of the fact that she was drugged and said no–that they think it was “consensual” sex with a 13-year-old that he thought was 16, or something like that–but anybody who is aware of all the facts of the case and still thinks Polanski should get off scot free…I don’t even have an answer for that.

September 29, 2009 at 4:37 pm
(7) Orakaa says:

I’m french, and TOTALLY agree with Tom’s article.

Being famous doesn’t change the fact that he SEXUALLY ABUSED a 13 year old girl… and then “avoided” USA to try to escape the charges against him.

I have 2 daughters (10 and 2 years old) and am utterly disgusted by the overall european artists reactions (especially french ones). Supporting a raper like that ? Why ? Because he’s famous ?
How about the SAME facts, but with a total stranger instead of Polanski ? No one would dare take this stranger’s defense

Justice is to be the same for all
I really feel for what Polanski had to experience… but the same horrible experiences might have happened to the murderers of Sharon Tate… yet no one has to feel any kind of sympathy for what they did

September 30, 2009 at 7:20 am
(8) Joanne says:

I think what Polanski did to the victim is horrible. What you didn’t mention in your article was the reason WHY he fled.

Polanski agreed to a plea bargain. Polanski plead guilty to one charge of unlawful sex with a minor and would get time served in jail with no additional jail time. However, he fled to France when he found out that the rogue judge was going to renege on the plea deal and give him a VERY LONG prison sentence.

September 30, 2009 at 7:53 am
(9) Tom Head says:

…which he could have challenged on appeal like everybody else, if he weren’t treated as if he was above the law. And while 50 years in prison was beyond the norm (and would have been recognized as such by the appeals court), serving only 45 days in prison for raping a 13-year-old is ludicrous.

October 1, 2009 at 12:04 am
(10) Ed says:

Joanne’s point is well taken, whether one has any sympathy for Polanski or not. The current judge acknowledges “significant” judicial misconduct on the part of the former judge prior to Polanski’s fleeing. There was also a civil lawsuit brought by victim Samantha Geimer which Polanski settled for an undisclosed (but probably significant) amount, and she has subsequently asked the state to drop charges.
So I’m not overly quick to buy into the popular clamor that: 1. His case involves no basic civil rights issues; nor: 2. he got off scot-free.
That said, I tend to agree with Tom that the best thing Polanski can do now would be to go ahead and face the court–and, for better or worse, bring some final closure to this.

October 1, 2009 at 1:51 pm
(11) Izzy says:

He pleaded guilty and failed to appear for sentencing. There are no charges to be dropped, reduced or dismissed. Let’s be honest, if he hadn’t been rich, famous and white then he would not have been out on bail pending sentencing in the first place.

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