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Debunking the Myths Surrounding the Roman Polanski prosecution

by Tony Medley

On March 10, 1977, Roman Polanski drugged, raped, and sodomized a 13-year-old girl on what he represented to her family would be a “photo shoot.” Her mother requested that she accompany her daughter, but Polanski dissuaded her. Polanski was charged with Unlawful Sexual Intercourse, Furnishing Drugs to a Minor, Lewd or Lascivious Acts upon a Child under 14 Years of Age, Rape by Use of Drugs, Perversion, and Sodomy, all felonies. On August 8, 1977, Polanski pled guilty to one count of Unlawful Sexual Intercourse and the other five counts were to be dismissed in a plea deal. Before sentencing, Polanski fled the country and has been a fugitive ever since.

He was arrested in Zurich, Switzerland in September and extradition proceedings are in process to have him returned to the country for sentencing. While most of the country apparently thinks that Polanski should face the music for what he did, Hollywood doesn’t agree and has flown to Polanski’s defense. Whoopi Goldberg said on national TV that what he did wasn’t “rape” rape.

Putting an additional spin on it, Film critic Ben Mankiewicz said on October 4, on CNN’s Reliable Sources, “Prosecution didn’t think it should be jail time.” This went uncontested by host Howie Kurtz (the media critic for the Washington Post) and the two other panelists, Lisa Bloom of CBS and the Washington Post’s Amy Argetsinger. As with lots of what comes out of the media today, this was dead wrong, although it is probably the prevailing view, due to biased media coverage, which might have contributed to hundreds of Hollywoodites signing a letter of support for Polanski.

But what are the facts? Anybody interested would easily be able to discover that Mankiewicz was talking through his hat.

At the hearing on August 8, 1977, prosecutor Roger Gunson asked Polanski:

Mr. Gunson: Mr. Polanski, do you understand that at the time of probation and sentencing, the prosecutor may argue that you should be sentenced to State Prison, or be incarcerated in the County Jail?

Polanski: Yes.

The transcript picks up later:

Mr. Gunson: The District Attorney will make a motion to dismiss the remaining pending charges after sentencing. Other than that promise, has anyone made any promises to you, such as a lesser sentence or probation, or any reward? Indemnity? A Court recommendation to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, or anything else, in order to get you to plead guilty? (Emphasis added).

Polanski: No.

After Gunson asked Polanski’s attorney, Doug Dalton, if he consented to the plea and Dalton said “yes,” Judge Rittenback said:

The Court: Before you do so, however, I must advise the defendant, under Section 92.5 of the Penal Code, that the approval of the court to the plea is not binding on the Court; that the Court may, at the time set for hearing on the application for probation or pronouncement of judgment, withdraw its approval, in light of further consideration of the matter; and three, in such case, the defendant shall be permitted to withdraw his plea, if he desires to do so. (Emphasis added).

After hearing this, Polanski pled guilty.

On September 19, 1977, Polanski returned to appear before Judge Rittenband again. At this hearing Dalton asked that no jail time be given Polanski for his crime. Contrary to what Mankiewicz said, here’s what the transcript reveals that the Prosecutor actually said in open court:

Mr. Gunson: …I believe that the probation report and the doctors have overlooked a few important facts in this case that demand that Mr. Polanski receive time in custody.

After reviewing the facts presented to the Grand Jury the transcript continues:

Mr. Gunson: This all indicates that this is more than a normal course of action, a situational event…It appears that it was almost planned. If you consider the photographs, and consider the fact that Mr. Polanski is a teetotaler, and he’s drinking alcohol and furnishing the alcohol, and he indicates that he is a user only of prescribed drugs, when in fact he furnishes a girl drugs that were not prescribed, and has – or, has in his possession drugs that were not prescribed, based upon those facts, your Honor, the people are requesting that Mr. Polanski be placed in custody for a violation of Section 26.5, the offense that he has pled guilty to.

So any claim by Mankiewicz and the others that the prosecution didn’t think that jail time was required is pure hogwash.

On another subject, was Polanski’s arrest in Zurich set up by the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office? When I first asked this question, I got a complete denial from the spokesperson for the District Attorney. She said that in 2002 an Interpol Red Notice was put out for Polanski that alerts law enforcement agencies throughout the world that someone is wanted. He’s been on that notice for seven years. There have been other sightings of him; this is the first time he’s been arrested. They’ve been trying to arrest him for 31 years. She said she was surprised because they’ve gone through this so many times over the past, so it snuck up on her.

She said that Swiss authorities arrested him on the basis of a warrant that was issued by authorities in Washington, not anything done by the District Attorney’s office. Her clear implication was that the DA’s office had done nothing special, and denied that there was a concerted effort to arrest Polanski, other than the Red Notice issued by Interpol.

However, later in the interview, she said that she couldn’t tell me how it all came about, implying that it was confidential. But she then said that they were “informed” that he was going to be there. When asked who informed them, she said that was confidential. The conclusion I draw from all this is that the DA’s office was involved and that Polanski’s trip to Switzerland was targeted.

When I asked if it wasn’t a crime fail to show up for sentencing and to be a fugitive, her response was simply that they hadn’t yet charged him with that. I asked a judge about a defendant’s failure to appear and his response was, “After guilty pleas, I sometimes look defendants in the eyes and make them solemnly pledge that they will report to prison on their report date. Failing to honor that pledge, regardless of the crime, is very serious.” As to the severity of Polanski’s crime and what would be an appropriate sentence for someone who pled guilty to such acts, he said, “Our sentencing guidelines tell me to send people to jail for years for looking at pictures of 13 year olds.”

The upshot is that a man who drugged, raped, and sodomized a 13-year-old girl and admitted to it will finally see some measure of justice meted out, however minimal it might be. Steve Cooley and the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office should be commended for staying with the Polanski case so that the man gets the punishment he deserves for what he did.