Sunday, October 4, 2009

Celebrity Justice. Or not.

Think about it another way.

Roman Polanski has spent the last 31 years or so living in France and Switzerland, making movies, winning an Oscar, and oh yeah, being a fugitive from justice. On his most recent trip to Switzerland - to attend a festival and pick up a prestigious award - he was arrested by Swiss authorities who have been, at last, asked to extradite him to the United States so that he can face whatever he might face for his crimes.

Perhaps we should be specific. He was charged with the drugging and multiple raping of a 13-year-old girl. He entered an agreed plea to something like unlawful sexual intercourse with a child under 14. He fled the country when word reached him that despite expectations when he entered the plea, the judge would impose some period of incarceration as part of the sentence. As is the case in all agreed pleas, the truth is murky.

In a plea bargain such as this one, the defendant (Polanski, here) admits to something less than the charges in return for the certainty that the sentence will be less than the potential sentence if found guilty at trial. The state obtains a guilty verdict and some sentence avoiding the risk that the defendant will prevail at trial and go free. Both the defendant and the state save the cost and stress of a trial. And when the alleged crime is a child rape, everyone avoids the public ugliness. The details of the allegation needn't come out. The child needn't suffer the stress of getting on the witness stand but also won't have to answer to cross examination.

The problem is that when everyone is willing to live with the bargain, nobody knows what actually happened. The reduction in risk and burden is also a reduction in accountability for the defendant and for the system.

[A brief aside here to note that the Duke lacrosse team did not rape Crystal Gail Mangum, and the Hofstra five did not rape Danmell Ndonye. Those cases never went to trial because the evidence that the allegations were false was clear and overwhelming and revealed and presented before things got that far. (And what is it about college students, anyway, that brings forth these false charges of gang rape?) There's no way of knowing how many false rape charges are prosecuted (but see here for an interesting discussion of the question). It's a certainty that it happens, though, and that some people are convicted of them - some even plead guilty.]

Polanski is now in his mid-70s. The girl now in her forties. He has been angling to get the prosecution dismissed. She has supported him in that effort, though she insists that he is guilty. The press, the arts communities (there's more than one) and the blogosphere are all in high dudgeon over Polanski's arrest and possible extradition.

It is, depending on who you listen to, an outrage or about time. Those who disagree are blinded by celebrity worship, wholly immoral, 21st Century Javerts chasing the noble Jean Valjean out of sheer vengence, Ashcroftian moral crusaders, or . . . . Enough. It's getting ugly out there.

Which brings us to that other celebrity rogue who's treatment has gotten attention lately, Andrew Sullivan. You remember, he's the friend of President Obama who got busted by the feds for blowing a bit of weed on federal property at Cape Cod. Unlike what happens to everyone else facing that charge, the local U.S. Attorney decided that the case against Sullivan should be dismissed because he'd suffer collateral consequences from a prosecution. The thing is most of those people who do get prosecuted suffer those same consequences, and nobody cares.

Yes, the government has discretion about who and when to prosecute. And yes the collateral consequences of prosecution are appropriate considerations to weigh when determining whether to exercise that discretion. (See commentary here, unearthed by Doug Berman here.) But when that discretion is only exercised in favor of the wealthy pal of the Pres with one of the most important political blogs in the country, well, you gotta wonder about abuse.

Don't misunderstand. Child rape is a vile act for which there's no excuse. Possession of marijuana (and this is in small amounts for personal use) shouldn't be a crime at all.

But the truth is that it looks a lot like Polanski got preferential treatment 31 years ago, and is being targeted now because he's charged the LA prosecutors with misconduct back then. And all of that is based on who he is. The ordinary child rape defendant wouldn't have been able to flee the jurisdiction in 1978. If he did, they'd have brought him back and nobody would have blinked. And if they hadn't found him for 31 years, they'd probably have forgotten all about it. Just as the public posturing on all sides is a consequence of his celebrity, so is every event in the case.

Same for Sullivan. What they did for him they should do for everyone. But anyone who spends even a brief time in the trenches of criminal law knows they don't.

Paris Hilton spent more time in custody than the typical drunk driver because of who she was. Michael Vick. OJ. The list goes on. Some do better for the celebrity, some do worse. What it never seems to be is irrelevant.


  1. "Those cases [Hofstra, Duke] never went to trial because the evidence that the allegations were false was clear and overwhelming and revealed and presented before things got that far"

    Actually, the evidence that the allegations were false in the Duke case came--at the latest--on Arpil 10, 2006, when the DNA tests results were released. That's a week BEFORE Nifong indicted anyone. The crime is that it took another year (till April 11, 2007) for the North Carolina AG to finally declare the defendants innocent.

    That's hardly a legal process to boast about...

  2. I wasn't suggesting otherwise. The Hofstra fiasco isn't, either. What saved the Duke folks is that they had lawyers who worked it up and proved it. Ultimately Nifong got burned, of course. But trials are always iffy. People have been convicted where the DNA proves them innocent because juries believe whatever they believe.