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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

The teenager testified that she told him that her father had thrown her out of the house and that she had no money or anything to eat. Trujillo offered to buy her dinner and later rented a motel room.

The girl told the court that their room had separate beds but that Trujillo climbed into hers in the middle of the night and forced himself on her.

"I told him to stop because it hurt," she testified. "I didn't know if he was going to kill me."

Trujillo was charged with rape and other serious sex crimes. In court, his attorney questioned the girl's account, saying that she did not immediately report being raped.

Trujillo pleaded no contest to unlawful sex with a minor and was sentenced to a year in jail. He was deported after his release.

In a case originally charged as a rape or other serious sex crime, an unlawful sex conviction is often the result of a plea bargain between a prosecutor with a difficult case to prove and a defendant who wants to settle the matter without risking a long stretch behind bars, according to experts and a review of case files.

In a 2004 case, Paul Van Ness, a music professor at Cal State Los Angeles, was charged with sodomy, oral copulation and other sex acts with a 15-year-old student. Van Ness, then 57, pleaded no contest to one felony count of unlawful sex with a minor as part of a deal with prosecutors that saw the other charges dismissed. He was sentenced to one year in jail.

On the day Van Ness surrendered to serve his jail time, his teenage victim criticized the sentence and told the court that she would live with the psychological effects of his crime long after he was freed.

"One year of being incarcerated is far too inadequate," she said. "Unfortunately, there does not exist any legal punishment harsh enough."

But his attorney, Gerson S. Horn, contended that the punishment was appropriate. He said that the professor and the victim were in a relationship that stretched more than a year and that no force was used.

In a recent interview, Horn cited parallels between the Van Ness and Polanski cases. He said a psychological study showed that Van Ness was not a risk to children. A similar study of Polanski in 1977 found that he was not a "mentally disordered sex offender." Both men had clean criminal records.

"Polanski should be treated no differently," Horn said. "A suitable time in the county jail would be sufficient."

In the director's case, the prosecutor had difficulty pursuing rape, sodomy and other serious charges because the victim did not want to testify at a trial. Superior Court Judge Laurence J. Rittenband sent the director to the state prison in Chino for 90 days of pre-sentencing diagnostic testing that the filmmaker's attorneys say was meant to serve as his sentence. The prison released Polanski after 42 days and advised the judge that testing indicated that he should spend no more time behind bars.

Rittenband criticized the report and signaled that he planned to sentence Polanski to serve the remainder of the 90 days if he voluntarily agreed to deportation. Informed of this by his attorney, Polanski fled the country, seeking refuge in France.

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