October 1, 2009 / 1:28 AM / 8 years ago

Polanski faces harsher U.S. justice system than 1977

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - If Los Angeles prosecutors succeed in extraditing Roman Polanski from Switzerland to face sentencing for having unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl, the film director will find that U.S. courts treat his crime more severely than 30 years ago.

When Polanski pleaded guilty for the 1977 crime, in which he also was accused of plying the girl with champagne and sedatives, an agreement with prosecutors called for him to be sentenced to the 42 days he had already served in jail.

But attitudes toward sex crimes have hardened in the United States in the intervening years and public opinion today does not appear to be on Polanski’s side.

“He might never see the light of day if he was brought to court today, but at the time, attitudes were a little more relaxed,” said Stan Goldman, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

No U.S. official has publicly supported the Oscar-winning director of “The Pianist” and “Chinatown.” Editorials in the Los Angeles Times and New York Times have called for Polanski, 76, to be brought to California to face justice.

U.S. movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and director Martin Scorsese have defended Polanski, but many in Hollywood so far have been reluctant to speak out on his behalf.

L.A. Police Chief Bill Bratton said on radio station KPCC on Wednesday that Polanski’s supporters among the “Hollywood elite” should revise their view of him.

“Bring him back and throw him in jail for the next 20 years, because today it would require a minimum of 18 to 20 years in jail for sodomizing, sodomizing a 13-year-old after getting her drunk,” Bratton said.

Polanski’s decision to flee California was motivated by his fear the judge in the case would overlook his plea deal with prosecutors and send him to prison for 50 years. It is unlikely a deal with a sentence as lenient as the one he was offered 30 years ago would be given today, legal experts said.


If he ultimately is sent back to Los Angeles, it is unclear how long a sentence he might receive because of how much time has passed since his 1977 plea, one judicial source said.

A spokeswoman for the agency that runs California’s prisons said that if Polanski were sentenced to prison, roughly two years would pass before he was eligible for parole. The length of any sentence would depend on a judge’s decision.

Several states, including Louisiana and South Carolina -- but not California -- have sought in recent years to extend the death penalty to convicted child rapists. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2008 invalidated those laws in a 5-4 decision.

Still, in his dissenting opinion, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito suggested that the state laws showed a “strong new evolutionary line” to heighten penalties for the crime.

One factor behind harsher penalties for such crimes against children has been high-profile cases such as the 1994 rape and murder of a 7-year-old New Jersey girl by a man previously convicted of a sex crime.

“Once it’s put in front of you, it’s very hard to oppose harsher punishment for the rape of a child,” said Tania Tetlow, a law professor at Tulane University in New Orleans.

Editing by Jill Serjeant and Peter Cooney

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