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Sentences in statutory rape convictions like Roman Polanski's are now longer

The Oscar-winning director faced a 90-day jail term before fleeing the United States in 1978. Today, sentences in cases with similar contours tend to be four times longer, an analysis of court records shows.

December 04, 2009|By Jack Leonard, Harriet Ryan and Doug Smith

Statutory rape convictions similar to Roman Polanski's typically result in sentences at least four times longer today than the 90-day punishment a judge favored before the director fled the United States in 1978, a Times analysis of Los Angeles County court records shows.

Polanski's arrest in Switzerland on an international fugitive warrant -- and his pending extradition proceedings -- have sparked transatlantic debate about whether the 76-year-old Academy Award winner should serve additional time behind bars for having sex with a 13-year-old girl.

His supporters have argued against any further incarceration while detractors have said that the disturbing details of his case -- the victim accused him of raping and sodomizing her as she pleaded with him to stop -- merit years or even decades in prison.

The Times analyzed sentencing data to determine how L.A. County courts today handle cases in which men admit to statutory rape -- also known as unlawful sex with a minor -- in exchange for the dismissal of more serious rape charges, as Polanski did. The findings show that those defendants get more time than Polanski has served -- even factoring in his 70-day stint in Swiss detention -- but less than his critics may expect.

Since 2004, there have been 50 cases in L.A. County that mirror the procedural contours of Polanski's. In 72% of those cases, the defendant got a sentence of a year or more.

Although comparable statistics are not available for the 1970s, figures cited at the time by Polanski's attorney indicate that no one convicted of unlawful sex with a minor then went to prison and more than a quarter of defendants didn't see any time behind bars at all.

"Thirty years ago, sexual assault -- rape and sex crimes -- were treated differently," said Robin Sax, a former sex crimes prosecutor for the L.A. County district attorney's office. "Time and education haven't worked for Polanski's benefit."

Polanski is scheduled to be moved from Swiss custody to house arrest at his Gstaad chalet this afternoon.

How Polanski would be treated if he does return to the United States is impossible to predict. Sentencing is more art than science, experts say, and depends heavily on the unique circumstances of each case.

Because of a complicated set of rules that take into account changes in the law since 1977, the maximum sentence Polanski faces is two years in prison.

In the cases The Times reviewed, the sentences were the product of plea negotiations between prosecutors and defense attorneys, with the judge's role limited to signing off on the deals.

In Polanski's case, a judge would determine the sentence. Polanski's attorney is expected to argue for his immediate release as is the victim, who has publicly forgiven the director. The district attorney's office has declined to say what sentence it would seek. In 1977, the prosecutor asked for an unspecified period in custody.

The judge could weigh factors in Polanski's favor -- his otherwise pristine criminal record, advanced age and the victim's wishes -- versus those against him -- the victim's youth, the allegation that he plied her with champagne and gave her part of a Quaalude, and his years as a fugitive.

Although Polanski was originally charged with serious crimes, including rape and sodomy, the charge he ultimately pleaded guilty to is among the least serious of sex crimes. Those convicted of unlawful sex with a minor are not required to register as sex offenders, and in some cases, receive only probation.

Nearly 800 people convicted of a single felony count of the charge have been sentenced since 2004. Although the convictions were identical, their sentences varied widely, depending on what prosecutors had originally accused them of doing, according to an analysis of court data provided by the district attorney's office.

Most defendants charged with only a single count of unlawful sex were either released on probation or sentenced to 90 days or less in jail. In one typical case, a Los Angeles man received three days in jail for having sex with his 16-year-old girlfriend when he was 20. Authorities were alerted after the girl gave birth to a son. By the time the man was sentenced earlier this year, they had married.

By contrast, the 50 offenders who, like Polanski, were initially charged with rape, received much harsher punishments, even after the rape charges were dropped.

In 42% of those cases, defendants were sentenced to at least 16 months in prison, where the most serious offenders are housed. Many of those defendants had criminal records, which Polanski does not.

In all but one of the remaining cases, the offenders were sent to jail. The median sentence was a year, the maximum possible in a county facility.

In July 2005, Jose Antonio Trujillo, a 43-year-old forklift operator from Norwalk, met a 15-year-old girl in the sauna of his gym, according to court records.

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