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November 24, 2009

The Fate of Roman

Work lunch with a bunch of other type A, strongly opinionated geeks often inspires heated discussion on a range of topics, from debating which one of us would be tastiest to eat to current events and politics. One that's been brought up a few times in the past two months is the fate of Roman Polanski, esteemed French and Polish film director (producer, writer, actor, etc.), who is currently holed up in Zurich after the U.S. made an extradition request to Switzerland for his return based on an outstanding warrant. More than 30 years ago, he drugged and raped a 13 year old girl in Los Angeles, California (assuming you believe her testimony). The story goes something like this:

"In March 1977, while on assignment for Vogue Hommes International to take pictures of adolescent girls, Roman Polanski was arrested for the sexual assault of Samantha Geimer, a thirteen-year-old girl hired for the photographic shoot. She testified that Polanski gave her a combination of champagne and quaaludes, a sedative drug and muscle relaxant, and despite repeated protests and being asked to stop, he performed oral sex, intercourse and sodomy upon her. In Roman, his 1984 autobiography, he insists the underage sex in the 1977 case was consensual although The Observer notes, "the victim's description has always suggested otherwise". A grand jury charged him with rape by use of drugs, perversion, sodomy, lewd and lascivious act upon a child under fourteen, and furnishing a controlled substance to a minor. At his arraignment Polanski pleaded not guilty to all charges. In an effort to preserve her anonymity, Geimer's attorney arranged a plea bargain which Polanski accepted, and, under the terms, five of the initial charges were to be dismissed. He pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of engaging in unlawful sexual intercourse, a charge which is synonymous under Californian law with statutory rape. The judge received a probation report and psychiatric evaluation, both indicating that Polanski should not serve jail time, and in response the film maker was ordered to ninety days in prison in order to undergo a psychiatric evaluation. He was released after forty-two days. Despite expectations and recommendations that he would receive only probation at sentencing, the judge "suggested to Polanski's attorneys" that more jail time and possible deportation were in order. Upon learning of the judge's plans Polanski fled to France in February 1978 hours before he was to be formally sentenced. As a French citizen, he has been protected from extradition and has mostly lived in France, avoiding countries likely to extradite him. Because he fled prior to sentencing, all six of the original charges remain pending. Geimer sued Polanski in 1988, alleging sexual assault, intentional infliction of emotional distress and seduction. In 1993 Polanski agreed to pay her at least $500,000 as part of a civil settlement. Geimer and her lawyers confirmed the settlement was complete. In September 2009 Polanski was arrested by Swiss police because of his outstanding U.S. warrant when he entered the country to accept a Lifetime Achievement Award at theZurich Film Festival. His initial request for bail was refused noting the "high risk of flight" and his subsequent appeal was rejected by Switzerland's Federal Criminal Court."

And he remains in the Swiss courts today (November 24, 2009). The fact he was picked up in Zurich is the reason it's sparked lunch discussion, and the fact this originated in the US, he holds both French and Polish citizenship, and France ended up being a safe haven for him due to their extradition laws has kept it on the lunch discussion menu since these countries cover a large intersection of mine and my colleague's nationalities. That and it's also celebrity gossip, which is everyone's guilty pleasure.

I find this whole ordeal interesting for a few reasons. First, the extradition laws that made his escape successful highlight some limitations of the international judicial process. No state has any obligation to surrender alleged criminals to foreign states on the basis that each state has legal authority over its own citizens. This lack of obligation has resulted in many countries forming bilateral treaties of extradition under certain conditions. For example, most western countries won't extradite a citizen for a political crime or if the death penalty will be imposed on the alleged criminal, but will in cases where an alleged criminal has failed to fulfill dual criminality. France (and other countries, including Russia, Germany, Austria, Japan, China) have laws that forbid extraditing their citizens when living within country. The law makes sense, but becomes controversial in a case like this. I'm especially curious about what happened here as it seems the U.S. could have (or did) ask for Polanski to be tried for the same crime in France, but this either did not happen or could not for a reason I don't completely understand. We've explored a few possibilities at lunch, including inability to process due to double jeopardy, but I'd love to have an explanation as to what caused the deadlock situation if someone has one or can point me to a reference.

Second, the current stalemate and controversy is suspenseful. Polanski actually owned property in Switzerland and has visited often, so I'm curious why the U.S. chose to extradite him this time, or who initiated the process. A hugely disappointing aspect to me is the the outpouring of support for his release based on artistic accomplishment. I expect the media to play this part up for dramatic effect, just as they play up the fact the man has led an undeniably sad life (his mother dying at Auschwitz, himself escaping the Krakow Ghetto, and his second wife murdered by the Manson Family). Still, it turns out a bunch of people signed a petition to support his release based on his contributions to theatre. Since when do we publicly acknowledge it's acceptable to excuse the rich and famous from established law? We excuse them all the time, but usually come up with some decent excuses. In this case, statute of limitations might be one, or perhaps time served due to the days he spent in U.S. jail plus the time he's currently spending in Zurich. But he should be judged regardless of his accomplishments, however touching they might be.

Third, I'm simply curious how one flees a country while living under the Hollywood spotlight; maybe it's not that bright after all. Is it as simple as buying a plane ticket from Travelocity, boarding a plane, and making sure not to wear anything flashy? I wonder how I'd pull it off...

Finally, I've thought a bit about what I think is fair, independent of all applicable jurisdictions (which aim to be fair, but are usually bound by precedent and inefficient processes that sometimes muck up the result). I personally think he should have to return to the U.S., get a slap on the wrist for fleeing, and then be left alone to carry on his days. The victim already received reparations from a civil trial and has forgiven Polanski with wishes to just be left alone. Though the victim's sentiments aren't always taken into account, they should be in this case and the whole thing should just go away.

In the end, I suspect something like that will actually happen. The drama and circus will be over, Polanski will get his life back, the victim will regain her peace, and I'll find someone else to gossip about over spƤtzle.
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