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Prosecuting Polanski

Despite a host of objections, the Justice Department and L.A.'s district attorney are right to seek extradition after having the director arrested in a decades-old child sexual abuse case.

September 29, 2009

Roman Polanski is a cinematic genius with a tragic history. But he is also a fugitive from justice who pleaded guilty to having sex with a 13-year-old girl. Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley and the U.S. Justice Department acted properly in asking Switzerland to extradite Polanski, regardless of how much time has elapsed and despite the fact that his grown-up victim isn't seeking his imprisonment.

The 76-year-old director of "Rosemary's Baby," "Chinatown" and "The Pianist" was arrested over the weekend in Zurich, where he was to have received an award. Many of Polanski's admirers in this country and abroad were outraged.

Their complaints were varied: It's a waste of money to apprehend Polanski for a crime committed in 1977. He is being hounded because he's a celebrity. He has suffered enough, both as a child in the Holocaust and as a husband whose wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered by disciples of Charles Manson. Samantha Geimer, his victim, has said she would have been content to have Polanski sentenced to time served (42 days, in a prison psychiatric facility). Questions also have been raised about the judge, who was ready to renege on a plea agreement that would have spared Polanski additional imprisonment.

Finally, in a caricature of European cosmopolitanism, France's culture minister fumed that the harrying of such a cultural icon revealed the face of "a scary America."

Some of these arguments are more persuasive than others. For example, Polanski may have a due-process claim based on improper behavior by the judge in his case. By contrast, he shouldn't be left alone because of tragedies in his life or his status as a legendary director. Nor is it relevant that his victim seeks no further punishment for him. Prosecutions are brought in the name of the state, not the victim.

Plausible or preposterous, these arguments are eclipsed by a simple fact: Polanski fled the country.

There was understandable outrage in 2001 when President Clinton pardoned Marc Rich, a commodities trader who had refused to return to the United States to face charges of tax evasion and trading with Iran. If a defendant accused of white-collar crimes must answer to accusations in court, so must someone accused of the far graver offense of sexually abusing a child. (Although Polanski pleaded guilty to statutory rape, Geimer has said that the sex wasn't consensual.)

In February, a judge said there had been "substantial" official misconduct in Polanski's original case, so the director may well persuade a court to free him. But first he must return.

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