Commentary | Roman Polanski: let him off the hook?

Point: Let sleeping dogs lie

Discussion of the fate of Roman Polanski has become terribly loaded. Given the diversity of opinion, and the labyrinthine nature of the blogosphere and public debate in general, this development is hardly surprising, but it appears that this particular topic is more controversial than most. This is for two reasons.

Primarily, the problem is simply that everyone seems to jump immediately to the most emotional of responses. It’s ironic that while Samantha Geimer is entirely opposed to a resurgence of the media frenzy that has made her life so difficult in the past, there are so many who leap quickly to her defence, demanding justice in spite of her wish to spend less time reliving a painful experience and more time with her husband and children.

This idea of justice then brings us to the second issue colouring this debate, reductive ignorance of what actually occurred in the Los Angeles courthouse in 1977. Yes, Polanski was initially charged with six counts: furnishing a controlled substance to a minor, lewd or lascivious act upon a child under 14, rape by use of drugs, unlawful sexual intercourse, perversion, and sodomy. However, all charges were dropped except for unlawful sexual intercourse, or statutory rape, to which Polanski pled guilty.

Why? Geimer, her family, and her lawyer decided that it would be much better to work out a plea bargain than force the 13-year-old girl to testify in court, live through a full trial, and have to deal with her name being made public. This had nothing to do with Polanski’s celebrity status or any other sort of privilege he might have exercised to get away with his crime.

Of course, the idea of celebrity does bring up another interesting aspect of the legal proceedings. Judge Rittenband, whose judicial misconduct in the case is at the very least somewhat absurd, appears to have been much more obsessed with celebrity than Polanski ever was. His attempted manipulation of both the defence attorney and the defence attorney’s arguments in the courtroom, as well as his media-conscious sentencing plans, betray him as entirely inappropriate to be judging such a case; it is for this reason that he was eventually removed at the request of the two lawyers involved. Despite the probation board’s recommendation for probation as a sentence, and the district attorney’s acceptance of this ruling, Rittenband thought it necessary to send Polanski to 90 days of “psychiatric evaluation,” not because he needed further psychological testing but as a punishment before his sentencing.

In fact, had the press not become gradually more opposed to the idea of probation during Polanski’s time in evaluation, the judge would probably have gone through with it. Instead, he called the two lawyers into his chambers before the scheduled sentencing, and attempted to work out a deal. Again, he attempted to tell them what to say in court, and then attempted to negotiate a prison sentence that he would subsequently recall for the press after the initial sentencing. Some of his suggestions were questionable, some entirely illegal. It was this unreliability of a judge who was more concerned with his appearance in the press than justice that scared Polanski into flight.

Should he have left? Of course not. Was he guilty of a horrible crime? Absolutely. But at this point in the legal process, falling into vitriolic obstinacy that he should be locked up forever is somewhat ridiculous. Polanski is not, and has never been, a threat to society since his singular abhorrent act. If one blames Polanski for running from potential jail time, one also has to be angry with the judicial process, which includes the judge and the people who negotiated the initial plea bargain, for not doing their best to put him there. The alternative, of course, is to give up being righteous, and to acknowledge the imperfect nature of justice and the importance of doing what is best for the victim.

Daniel Walber is a U3 History and Italian literature student. Write him at