LOS ANGELES — If Roman Polanski were charged with child rape today, DNA evidence, stiffer penalties, outcry over childhood sexual abuse and tougher scrutiny of celebrity justice would make prosecutors much less willing to cut the plea deal the director received more than 30 years ago, legal experts say.
For one thing, changes in state law since the 1970s would give prosecutors other options in pursuing charges, including a law that includes a mandatory 15 years to life in state prison for rape, sodomy or a lewd act with a child coupled with certain circumstances, such as the use of a controlled substance, said Robin Sax, a former sex crimes prosecutor with the district attorney’s office.
“He should be shutting up and thanking goodness for his sentence,” said Sax, who is also a victim’s advocate. “There’s one part of me that says, ‘Bring it on, you want your trial? Let’s let everyone here see what the evidence really is.’”
Polanski was accused of plying a 13-year-old girl with champagne and part of a Quaalude during a modeling shoot in 1977 and raping her. He was initially indicted on six felony counts, including rape by use of drugs, child molesting and sodomy.
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The director pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of unlawful sexual intercourse; in exchange, the remaining charges were dropped, and the judge agreed to sentence Polanski to 42 days he served while undergoing a psychological evaluation. But Polanski fled the country Feb. 1, 1978, the day he was scheduled to be sentenced, after the judge reportedly told lawyers he planned to add more prison time.
Victims of clergy sexual abuse staged a protest outside the district attorney’s office Wednesday to protest celebrities who have publicly supported Polanski since his arrest in Zurich, Switzerland over the weekend.
“It is very, very similar to the allegations against the priests ... and no one says that we should just ignore the priest pedophilia,” said Katie Buckland, executive director of the California Women’s Law Center and former Los Angeles city attorney, who was not affiliated with the protesters.
An HBO documentary released last year suggested judicial misconduct surrounding Polanski’s plea deal. The victim, who didn’t want to testify against him at the time, has joined in Polanski’s bid for dismissal, which is currently before a California appellate court.
Chad Hummel, Polanski’s attorney, declined to comment.
‘Massive amounts of jail time’
Experts watching the case unfold on two continents say in today’s climate, Polanski would have very little chance of getting the sort of plea deal he got in 1977 — judicial misconduct or not.
“I think we treat sex and sex with minor cases now much more severely than we did then,” said Stan Goldman, a law professor at Loyola Law School of Los Angeles. “I think Polanski or anybody today would be looking at massive amounts of time in jail ... in light of the allegation, as originally charged, that this was forcible, and that he fed her drugs.”
Court papers from the late 1970s suggest that prosecutors agreed to dismiss the five more serious charges against Polanski in part because the victim did not want to testify at trial and was traumatized by the media frenzy surrounding the case.
District Attorney John Van de Kamp said at the time that he struck the unusual plea bargain with Polanski because he wanted to spare the 13-year-old girl from testifying during a trial that “could victimize her a second time.”
“We chose to side with her,” Van de Kamp said after the August 1977 hearing where Polanski pleaded guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse. The deal would “provide the victim with the opportunity to grow up in a world where she’ll not be known as the young girl with whom Roman Polanski had sexual intercourse.”
Prosecutors also asked the judge to accept the plea to avoid “another ‘Hollywood Babylon’ trial.”
The victim, Samantha Geimer, who long ago identified herself, has since said she forgives him and wants the ordeal to be over.
But those wishes might be carry less weight if the case was brought today because advances in forensic science could provide DNA and other evidence that could be used in lieu of testimony. At the time, a police lab technician told a grand jury that chemical testing indicated the presence of seminal fluid on the girl’s underwear.
“If they had that kind of DNA evidence, it gives the prosecution a real, real case today,” said Goldman, the law professor.
Still, experts cautioned that despite a different legal climate, today’s prosecutors can only deal with the charge that remains after Polanski’s plea deal: unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor.
“It was originally filed as a child rape case but it didn’t end up as such,” Goldman said. “He may have been a child rapist, but the reality is, that’s not what he was ... convicted of.”
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