Karl Vick and Richard Leiby, Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, September 28, 2009 1:00 PM
The arrest of director Roman Polanski in Switzerland on charges of fleeing sentencing for unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl in Los Angeles pushed into the diplomatic realm a case that for 31 years existed, at least in America, chiefly in the dominion of celebrity and notoriety.
The French and Polish governments stepped into the case Monday, urging Switzerland to release the 76-year-old Polanski, who was arrested at the Zurich airport Saturday night by Swiss authorities acting at the request of the Los Angeles district attorney's office. Prosecutors there had learned of the Oscar-winning director's plans to attend a film festival in his honor, and passed a request through the U.S. Justice Department.
Washington Post staff writers Karl Vick and Richard Leiby were online Monday, Sept. 28, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the case and the latest news developments.
Richard Leiby: Hello. Welcome to the chat. With the Roman Polanski arrest story is really riling up the Web (as well as various European capitals), we will try to bring the issues into focus (director-style) as best we can. I oversee movie coverage as an editor in the Post's Style and Arts sections, and Karl Vick is the paper's Los Angeles bureau chief and author of today's story.
Orlando, Fla.: A fugitive is arrested. Does this stuff deserve a headline, several op-ed articles and a live chat in the WP?
Richard Leiby: Maybe it would deserve no coverage in a perfect world that isn't obsessed with movies and celebrity. The media love any story that involves sex, fame and infamy. And as Karl's piece today made clear, this is now an international story. I wouldn't even be surprised if somebody in the White House press corps asks the question of whether the administration should continue with the extradition given the outcry in France.
Southern Pines, N.C.: Is the French refusal to hand over Polanski to the U.S. a strict interpretation of their policy not to extradite French citizens or is it more of a reverence for him being an artist? Or maybe even a belief in his innocence?
Karl Vick: Both, I expect. The question is perhaps better answered by Mr. Ed Cody, of Paris, France. He's The Post's correspondent there. But for what it's worth, the country's foreign minister, Bernard Koucher, is quoted today as calling the arrest "a bit sinister."
Chicago, Ill.: I understand that Mr. Polanski has been through much in the past. No one denies that. But should the horrific death of his wife and house guests preclude him from sentencing for the charge that he has already plead guilty to? He admitted to sexual interactions with a 13-year-old girl. Please help me out here. Why all the drama over this? What other information are we missing? If there is missing information, why has Mr. Polanski not submitted said information in his defense?
Richard Leiby: Drama's a good word for it; this is, after all, a Hollywood case. But the drama that attaches to the case is entirely irrelevant to the law. Emotions mean nothing, including any sympathy for Polanski's tragic life story, or the victim's expressions of a sort of forgiveness (she has said she's gotten on with her life and has no problem with Polanski's returning to the United States). Although the director admitted to the statutory rape charge, the pending charge is related to his flight from the court's jurisdiction. He reportedly attempted to resolve this matter in 1997, but negotiations fell apart.
Houston, Tex.: Other than in his plea-bargain papers, has Mr. Polanski ever admitted that he had sex with the 13-year-old?
Karl Vick: In truth I don't rightly know. But that's the one and only place it would matter, of course. Or matter most. I could see denials in other forums -- interviews and such -- aggravating the situation inside the courtroom. The former sheriff of Orange County, for instance, celebrated so openly at getting "not guilty" verdicts on several charges against him that the judge cited his behavior when he imposed a whopper of a sentence for the one count the jury did bring back.
Woburn, Mass.: If you read the transcript, its pretty clear it was forcible rape, so I [am] not sure what defense Polanski could have. Is rape of a 13-year-old not a crime of importance in France or Poland? If it's legal for a 30-plus year-old to get a 13-year-old drunk and force them to have sex, I think the USA needs to cancel a lot of High School Trips. What is the deal, why would the Europeans have protected this monster for so long?
Karl Vick: Righto. As our story pointed out today, the facts are not really in dispute. They do seem to be so powerful, however, that they overwhelm the narrative of Polanski's flight: He pled guilty; prosecutors offered a deal; he took it; but on the eve of its execution in the courtroom the judge in the case signaled he would not abide by it, to the distress of prosecution and defense alike. With His Honor talking about putting him away for years, despite what prosecutors wanted, Polanski decided he liked his chances better on the lam.
Sacramento, Calif.: Do you know if Polanski was surprised by this?
Richard Leiby: The organizers of the festival that was honoring Polanski in Zurich certainly were surprised. And it seems to me that Polanski was totally sandbagged. He has a home in Switzerland, in Gstaad, and travels there to ski. But evidently, the U.S. Marshals Service had been tracking him for a while, just waiting for an occasion when Polanski's whereabouts would be confirmed. The film festival was advertised on the Internet. Bingo.
Colorado Springs, Colo.: I understand that the prosecutors reached a plea bargain with Polanski, then reneged on it due to political pressure. Hence he fled the country. Is this correct?
Karl Vick: Only partly correct. The prosecutors did not renege. The judge in the case, since deceased, signaled however that he would not abide by the agreement, which prompted Polanski to flee.
The HBO documentary, "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired," lays this out in meticulous detail. It's quite an impressive piece of journalism, and devastating to the reputation of the judge.
Worth noting that in February of this year another LA Superior Court Judge, Peter Espinoza, agreed with the thrust of the film. He found that "there was substantial, it seems to me, misconduct during the pendency of this case," according to the account by Harriet Ryan in the Los Angeles Times.
But Espinoza said that in order to act on the motions of Polanski's lawyers seeking to dismiss all charges, the filmmaker would have to show up in court. He gave Polanski a couple of months to do so, and when he didn't show, said "Motion is denied."
Washington, D.C.: Do you think the Swiss cooperation in the arrest is connected to the deteriorating relationship the U.S. has with Switzerland over anonymous bank accounts? It's been known for years that Polanski travels throughout Europe -- Switzerland included. Also, why would the L.A. authorities request it now? What do you think their motivation is?
Karl Vick: Can't say, of course. But to me that's what is most intriguing about this arrest. Something has changed here. Polanski has previously felt so free moving in and out of Switzerland that he even owns a vacation home there, on the slopes.
Fairfax, Va.: Several years ago, French actor Gerard Depardieu made the mistake of boasting to an interviewer that he had raped women in the past, which pretty much killed his American fan base. I got the impression at the time that perhaps French culture still thinks about rape in an old- fashioned, romantic way, instead of the ugly reality. Is this a French-American cultural disconnect, that they are more tolerant of rape or at least acquaintance rape? I don't know that much about French culture -- are they against women's rights in general, or is it just a difference about sex with young minors?
Karl Vick: Goodness, who knows? I don't even speak the language. But that Depardieu thing is news to me. I remember in college seeing him in a movie that ended with his character severing his member with an electric knife. Art, life, and so on.
New York, N.Y.: I watched the HBO documentary and felt quite clearly that the Judge had violated rules of ethics, and misused his power to put Mr. Polanski into "observation" when the Judge was actually using it as a form of jail. Why hasn't the U.S. moved quickly and repudiated this wrongful set of actions (as well as ex parte communication with the prosecutor), and set aside the verdict?
Richard Leiby: Polanski's lawyers had been pursuing exactly that line of attack here in the U.S. prior to his arrest. The documentary, "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired," which I recommend for those who haven't seen it, developed some new information about the allegedly improper actions by Judge Laurence J. Rittenband, now deceased. Polanski's attorneys sought to have the case dismissed in December. But I can't see the US Justice Department stepping in. This is a matter of local jurisdiction (except the request for extradition had to be made by the feds).
Fairfax, Va.: I'm in no way defending child molesters, but if I recall the stories at the time there were some questions about whether Polanski knew the girl's age and whether the girl's mother had some role in the events. But that's no excuse. Polanski was originally charged with multiple felonies, and his guilty plea was part of a plea bargain that the judge apparently wasn't willing to honor. Before you get into what might happen now could you give a short summary of the undisputed facts (if there are any) of this case? Also, a specific question: The victim has publicly said that she thinks the case should be dropped. Does that have any legal impact?
Karl Vick: I don't believe the victim's opinion necessarily has a legal impact, but you'd expect a prosecutor, or indeed a judge, to take it into account. Indeed the prosecutors did take it into account in composing the plea agreement; she, and her lawyer, agreed to its terms.
As for the facts, I don't believe they are much in dispute in the court record: Her grand jury testimony was made public a few years ago; I glanced at it on the Smoking Gun sight yesterday. It was pretty clearly rape and sodomy. As for the rumors of stage mothering and complicity by the victim: there was all sorts of such talk in the press at the time, to some extent no doubt originating from the defense side, as tends to happen in a sex case. But in this case it was apparently embraced with great zeal by the press, especially the European press, which was keen on the "Lolita" angle.
Not by chance, I think, did the victim come to feel that, as badly as she felt used by Polanski, the real trauma came at the hands of the meda.
Toronto, Canada: Is the DA office in L.A. so flush with funds that they can afford to extradite and prosecute this man for a 31-year-old crime? I thought California was nearly bankrupt? Also, is L.A. so tranquil and free of crime that it must look to European-based fugitives to keep its attorneys busy? What are the real motives behind his arrest?
Richard Leiby: Interesting question about motives. There's some speculation that the HBO documentary lit a fire under this cold case -- that the prosecutors weren't happy with their depiction and wanted to take action of some sort. The timing is something that everyone's wondering about. Then again, the law has a long memory. The warrant remained outstanding; Polanski remained a fugitive. Justice must be served, even after 31 years. The auteur could not expect that this "drama," as a previous chatter noted, would not have a third act. (Not to be crass, but in Hollywood terms, the molestation was the inciting incident of the first act; the long second act was Polanski's exile; the resolution isn't here yet, but denouement is in the works.)
Sacramento, Calif. : It's hard to see what could be gained from extraditing and imprisoning Roman Polanski. What purpose would it serve? And another celebrity circus would cost the state of California millions of dollars that it cannot afford.
Karl Vick: Celebrity justice is a specialty here, though. And though I'm not sure the price tag would get to millions, Judge Espinoza did say that if Polanski was going to come back, please give the court a few weeks to get the logistics in order.
Silver Spring, Md.: Even though I personally think Polanski should serve at least a token sentence (or make one huge payment to an organization taking care of underage victims of sexual predators), I could see some reasons he might not be sent to the U.S., including some reported flaws in the investigation, trial, etc. However, I am puzzled when I hear people, such as a Swiss producer and French officials, say Polanski should not be extradited at least in part because he's a gifted artist. Should we excuse an adult from preying on children because he's been successful as an artist/entertainer? Some people were certainly ready to excuse Michael Jackson from any possible wrongs since they loved his music, but at least he wasn't ultimately judged guilty in a court of law. Polanski admitted guilt.
Karl Vick: Just so. I can understand that one of the more maddening elements of the tension between the American and European perspectives on Polanski's case is the angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin philosophizing on these questions.
That said, it's entirely possible that Polanski has been cast in Europe not simply as a fugitive but more as a refugee from a rogue U.S. justice system.
Trenton, N.J.: Your colleague Anne Applebaum has written an opinion piece voicing her outrage about the arrest of Roman Polanski. Do you agree with her? She did not disclose in the piece that her husband, who is the foreigner minister of Poland, has been working to have Polanski released? Does this constitute a conflict of interest? Does this violate WoPo's ethic rules?
washingtonpost.com: The Outrageous Arrest of Roman Polanski (Post, Sept. 27)
Richard Leiby: Anne's piece certainly caused a firestorm of comments. (And my personal opinion is beside the point, sorry.) As for any supposed conflict of interest or ethics issues, I'd have to defer to our expert Ombudsman, Andy Alexander -- if indeed there are questions worthy of investigation.
Karl Vick: Trenton, I passed on your question by e-mail to Anne. Her reply:
"I have disclosed that before, more than once. Also, when I wrote the blog I had no idea that my husband, who is in Africa, would, or could do anything about it, as Polanski is not a Polish citizen. I am not responsible for his decisions and he is not responsible for mine. "
Falls Church, Va.: NBC this morning already mentioned his mother was a Holocaust survivor. How soon will we be watching Schindler's List on three networks if Polanski isn't released?
Karl Vick: Banter! The premise of the question as firmly locked in conspiracy theorizing as any out of the Middle East! It truly is a global world...
Alexandria, Va.: You know this story has a local connection... the mother of the 13- year-old did the "You get your way at Ourisman Chevrolet" commercials for years and was something of a local celebrity. Some time back, one of the Washington Post writers did a column on it. John Kelly, I think.
washingtonpost.com: Read This: Crime and Punishment Edition (Post, Sept. 28)
Richard Leiby: Yes, the "Reliable Source" reported that last year. Both mother and daughter now live in Hawaii. We tried last evening to reach them, to no avail. Also the director of the HBO documentary also declined to comment. (As did representatives for Jack Nicholson -- we cast a wide net.)
What's to be gained...: If the DA's office didn't continue to pursue this case, it might embolden other criminals of means from pulling the same course of action.
Karl Vick: The long arm of the law, and so on.
SW D.C.: I note the French and Poles are requesting bail. Since part of the issue is that he skipped bail before, how likely is it to be granted? What happens if he skips again?
Karl Vick: One assumes he goes back to France. And travels a bit less.
Columbia, Md.: I was shocked that Judge Espinoza mentioned the documentary in his ruling on the case. If a juror saw that documentary while deciding Polanski's case, that juror would be thrown in jail (according to my mother, who is an attorney). How is that not judicial misconduct? I wouldn't prosecute someone from Goldman Sachs on the basis of Michael Moore's Capitalism documentary any more than believe that Polanski was railroaded for a crime he PLEAD GUILTY to. It's ridiculous.
Karl Vick: I wasn't there but a judge isn't a jury, of course, and I gather much of what was in the reams of documents filed in support of the motion rose from reporting in the documentary.
Which, by the way, appeared to be extremely solid journalism. Michael Moore's films don't claim to be more than agitprop, do they?
Anonymous: If the original prosecutors agreed to a plea deal not putting him in jail why have they fought so hard to pursue him over the years?
Karl Vick: I don't know that it's the same individuals in the DA's office. Also: How hard have they in fact pursued him if he's been on the lam for three decades?
Heavens, I saw the man myself, in the dining room of the Oktoberskya Hotel in Moscow in, what, December 1990? He was making a movie in town, holding court, and enjoying the excellent borscht.
Boulder, Colo.: What penalty could Polanski face for fleeing from the U.S. while awaiting sentencing? Or is the fleeing no longer punishable because of the statute of limitations?
Richard Leiby: This is a terrific question. Sadly, I don't have the answers right at hand. Any former LA DA office prosecutors out there, or California criminal law experts?
Burke, Va.: Why do you use the term statutory rape in the leading paragraphs to describe the crime? It seems to imply that it was not a violent crime and only an issue of having sex with a minor. The facts from the grand jury made clear that this was a forcible act. Why don't you just call it "the rape of a 13-year-old girl"?
Karl Vick: We wrestled with the phrasing for a while. The final language was editors', on deadline, but your question is a good one.
Washington, D.C.: I keep reading that the rape took place at Jack Nicholson's house. Was he present for it?
Karl Vick: No Jack was not present but the crime occurred in a bedroom in his house. According to testimony, Anjelica Huston knocked on the door during the incident to ask what was going on in her bedroom.
washingtonpost.com: Polanski Case Revisited (L.A. Times, Sept. 27)
Greenbelt, Md.: I seem to be confused. Are people really trying to imply that if you [have] personal tragedies that it's okay to give a 13-year-old drugs and alcohol to have sex with her? Or that you should flee the country when you get a crappy judge?
Karl Vick: Some are, some aren't.
Alexandria, Va.: They want Hillary Clinton to intervene? On what planet would that be anything but political suicide?
Karl Vick: On Mars.
Long Island, N.Y.: Question -- was it ever discovered how he actually get out of U.S. (e.g., did he get out through Canada, on a private plane or did he just slip through the net in the 70s)?
And was anyone ever charged in aiding his evasion?
Richard Leiby: Wish I had all the details, but you should visit this site for some interesting reporting at the time -- original clips:
Polanski Case Revisited: Newspaper Coverage of the Events When They Happened (L.A. Times, Sept. 27)
Note that cops said Nicholson was out of town, but the LA paper reported they did arrest ANJELICA HOUSTON while executing a search warrant, for possession of a "small amount of cocaine."
Lenoir, N.C.: We can't get Osama bin Laden, but we can get Roman Polanski.
Whew! Now I can sleep at night.
Richard Leiby: Noted. But remember the law is the law, no matter what the degree or enormity (or not) of the crime.
washingtonpost.com: Polanski Case Revisited: Newspaper Coverage of the Events When They Happened (L.A. Times, Sept. 27)
Washington, D.C.: None of the coverage whatsoever has asked the question of 1. Why was this girl hanging out with a 30-something-year-old and 2. Where were her parents? I don't mean that to excuse his behavior at all, he's disgusting, but this girl obviously wasn't raised right and should never have been put in this kind of position. Thoughts?
Karl Vick: I believe the introductions went as follows: The mother, who was acting at the time, was dating (or had a friend who was dating; I'm going by memory here) a man who was friends with Polanski. The daughter was acting and modeling. Polanski asked to photographer her, saying he had an assignment for French Vogue, and the daughter happily agreed, seeing it as a great opportunity. He photographed her one day, unsupervised, and instructed her to take her top off, which she did. He then arranged to photograph her a second day, and on that occasion took her to Nicholson's house, disrobed, climbed into a hot tub naked, gave her Champagne, a third of a Quaalude and took her to the bed and over her protests penetrated her front and back.
She told friends, who told her mother, who called the police. The victim has many times said she regarded the aftermath as much worse than the crime, which is probably something worth at least as much consideration as the run-up.
Washington, D.C.: I read the whole transcript from Smoking Gun. I have heard about the case for years but once I read the details of what the child victim went through he should do his time. He raped her and sodomized her. Perhaps the original judge felt the plea deal was not justice. I haven't seen the HBO special; why does it seem to only focus on the rapist and not the victim?
Karl Vick: The victim is in the film, and supports its argument that Polanski had good reason to scram. Mind, she also received a settlement from Polanski, something that is rarely mentioned.
Trenton, N.J.: Thanks for your effort in getting a response from Anne. I hope she will learn from this.
You have high praises for the documentary "Polanski: Wanted and Desired". Do you know that Harvey Weinstein, the film mogul who has bought rights to distribute the film, is now actively trying to get Polanski released?
See: Roman Polanski Arrest: Hollywood Unites in his Defence (Guardian.co.uk)
Karl Vick: Did not know that. Thanks for onpassing.
Richard Leiby: Just curious: Nobody has brought up any of Polanski's films. Perhaps this isn't the right venue, but does anyone want to nominate favorites? Our film critic, Ann Hornaday, told me this morning that hers is "Repulsion." Mine has to be "Chinatown," especially in light of all the questions being raised about why the case is being pursued now. Sorry we don't have good answers. Except, perhaps: "Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown."
Southern Maryland: Whenever I've read about Polanski in the past, it's almost always been in a culture-war context. Hollywood-bashers used to point to him as the ultimate expression of what they saw as the entertainment industry's amorality. Are such arguments still being made? While I don't have any sympathy for Polanski, it's misleading to use a person's life or actions to push a particular social agenda one way or the other. I was surprised to read that at one time, people opposed to the hippie movement claimed that Manson was the ultimate hippie, as if the Woodstock Nation was in danger of turning into deranged killers.
Karl Vick: I do think much of the power of the whole Polanski saga, and especially the Charles Mansion section, rises from how it nests in the popular culture, blending real life happenings with "artisitic endeavors." Manson lived with Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys for a time and was obsessed with the Beatles, whose "Helter Skelter" he read as describing a race war the Tate-LaBianca murders were somehow supposed to incite? The murders take place less than a week before Woodstock, the crescendo of peace-love-and-understanding, and the Manson family is apprehended five days before Altamonte, the Rolling Stones' version that's forever colored by their decision to use as security Hell's Angels, who kill a festival goer while cameras roll.
And news coverage of the murder of Sharon Tate frequently includes footage from "Rosemary's Baby," which had been a hit the summer before, directed by Polanski. Some of the "witchy" quality that Manson asked of his minions that night, ready and waiting, and it colored views of Polanski even then.
washingtonpost.com: This concludes our discussion. Thank you for joining in.
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