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Kangaroo courts part 1: The Polanski case

Every so often we are faced with a news story that divides opinion and causes heavy debate. In these cases, emotion often rules supreme and otherwise pleasant people become laptop dictators demanding justice and punishment. They seldom know more than the basic public stance, cry righteous indignation without a semblance of objectivity, and the baying mob forms.

Two such cases are currently being heavily debated in the media. The first is the subject of this blog and is the arrest and trial of Roman Polanski. The second which will hopefully form the basis of my next blog is the current fracas surrounding the Reitz 4 at the University of the Free State.

Polanski was born on 18 August 1933 in France to a Polish Jewish father and a Russian Catholic mother. They moved back to Poland in 1936, just in time for the outbreak of World War II. You don’t get worse timing or placement than that.

The Germans invaded when Polanski was 6 years old and interred his family in the Krakow ghetto. His father survived Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp in Austria. His mother did not survive Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Young Roman escaped the ghetto in 1943 after four years of hell and was hidden by Catholic families until the end of the war.

He later became a film-maker to almost instant acclaim (his first full-length movie was nominated for an academy award) and is considered by many to be the best of his generation. It should already be obvious why Polanski had something to say on the big screen but that was only the start to an incredibly turbulent life which you can read about in full here.

He married actress Sharon Tate in 1968. She was 25 years old at the time. He was 35. She was eight-and-a-half months pregnant with their first baby a year later when she and others at her house in Hollywood became the random tragic victims of members of Charles Manson’s gang. She pleaded for the life of her unborn child but they butchered her anyway, stabbing her 16 times, killing her and the baby. The full story is truly horrific.

Polanski was obviously devastated. In fact, devastated can hardly describe what a man must feel when his wife and unborn child are slaughtered like animals by a cult of serial killers when he is not there to protect them. It is a wholly inadequate word to describe something that I don’t think you ever recover from, especially when you have already survived the Polish ghetto and thought you were now free of this kind of brutality. To make matters worse Polanski himself was suspected of involvement for a while and the usual conservative members of the public blamed the darker subject matter of his movies as motivation for the killings.

In 1976, seven years after the death of his wife and unborn child, Polanski entered into a relationship with Nastassja Kinski who was 15 years old at the time after working with her on a movie.

A year later in 1977 he met Samantha Geimer. She was 13. She was described as a precocious and ambitious teenager. Her mother, an actress, moved in the Hollywood circle. Her ambitious daughter was trying to launch her own modelling and acting career at this early age and her mother somehow introduced her to Polanski who offered to photograph her for a magazine.

Things went pretty wrong from there. Polanski started to meet with Samantha and photograph her. Then one day, he took her to Jack Nicholson’s house, took some photographs of her topless in a Jacuzzi, plied her with champagne and Quaaludes (Mandrax) and had sex with her. It is unclear whether he knew her exact age but I presume he did or at least knew she was very young.

You can read the detailed court transcripts of Samantha’s version of the incident under questioning here.

Samantha’s mother reported the incident to the police and Polanski was arrested and charged for having sex with a minor or “unlawful sexual intercourse”. The trial was a media circus. A recent article in Newsweek describing a documentary by Marina Zenovich about Polanski’s trial and flight from the US, considered to be the definitive story of the incident describes it as follows:

    Polanski pleaded guilty to “unlawful sexual intercourse”; probation was the recommendation. But the judge began to manoeuvre behind the scenes: he wanted to look tough for the press, though not necessarily send Polanski to prison. He asked a reporter for advice on what sentence he should give; he gave regular interviews to a Hollywood gossip columnist. The day before the sentencing — despite an agreement with Dalton and Gunson — Rittenband was overheard bragging at his country club that he was going to lock up Polanski for the rest of his life. The next day Polanski was gone, his Mercedes abandoned at the Los Angeles airport. Even the prosecutor now says, “I’m not surprised he left under those circumstances”.

Following a blog here on Thought Leader in which both the author and most of the comments called for Polanski’s head, I found it quite frightening that few people knew much about the case at all. It seems that all that was required to work up the mob was the basic outline of the facts. Creepy old guy rapes beautiful young innocent maiden. End of story. Judge him and send him down for life.

I have a problem with this and I shall try to be as sensitive as possible here for rape is never to be trivialised. I feel that Polanski knew the girl was very young. I feel he should have shown both the responsibility and restraint that a man of his age should possess. I do, however, after reading the court transcripts, reading different versions of the story, trying to understand the motives of the girl for being in the situation, trying to understand the shaping of the life and outlook of Polanski, watching bits of the documentary made by Zenovich feel that there was more to this story. Too many things simply do not add up and I do not believe that the girl was as innocent as she is assumed to be simply by virtue of her age.

And while we are on age …

The age of consent varies quite dramatically depending on where you are in the world. The following map shows this variation.

Age of consent around the world.

In the US alone, the age of consent varies between 16 and 18. That means you can have consensual sex with someone on one side of a state border and it is called statutory rape on the other. Similarly, you can have consensual sex with girl in California who is 17 and 364 days old and you are a criminal whereas if you had waited a day you are perfectly entitled to have said sex on her 18th birthday. Venture just a bit south to Mexico and it gets as low as 12 in certain provinces. What this says about the age of consent is that it varies hugely depending on your cultural and religious views as a society. It also does not take into account the radical differences in maturity between different individuals at different ages. Spain, a member of the EU, sets their age of consent at 13, the age that Samantha Geimer was at the time of the incident. In the Spanish view, Samantha Geimer was old enough to know exactly what she was doing and what sex was all about. In California, where the incident took place, 18 is the age of consent which means she was a full five years away from understanding the implications of sex and being able to make the decision to engage in it or not.

That is hardly clarity on the issue.

The presumption by many is simply that Polanski lured a young, naive girl to a big deserted house, drugged her and raped her; a sexual predator of the worst kind. There are however some other facts not commonly cited or noted by the mob:

1. The girl was ambitious and trying to launch a modelling career. She had stripped and changed in front of Polanski without his request at a previous photo shoot as well as the shoot in question. She later maintained that she was scared of him and that is why she did not stop him having sex with her. Her actions prior to the sexual incident do not really bear that out.

2. The girl’s mother allowed her 13 year old daughter to go with him without supervision more than once. As an actress and Hollywood veteran trying to promote her daughter as a sex symbol on the cover of an international magazine with a man commonly known for his affair with the 15-year-old Kinski only one year earlier, her mother should surely have known the risks. Perhaps she did. Mine certainly would have.

3. The girl had had sex more than once prior to the incident with Polanski (she stated twice). It is not clear with whom and under what circumstances.

4. The girl had taken drugs prior to the incident with Polanski and from the transcripts appeared to have more than a theoretical knowledge of their effects. In fact I have to admit that from the transcripts she knew more about Mandrax at 13, including having taken it before, than I knew at 23.

5. Both the alcohol and the Quaaludes were accepted without argument and were not forced onto her by her own admission. From the transcripts it certainly does appear as if Polanski was the driving force behind the appearance of both the drinks and the drugs. I presume that he was certainly trying to promote a situation in which the relaxation brought on by the drinks and drugs would overcome the barriers that normally inhibit people from having casual sex. What is not clear is if the girl used the drink and drugs for the same Dutch courage.

6. Polanski maintains that the sex was consensual.

Now I don’t know what happened exactly that day between Geimer and Polanski but neither do you. Only they know and they may even have a different view of how it happened. Here are some possible scenarios:

1. Polanski may have lured her to the house under false pretences and forced himself on her. She may have been drugged enough not to be able to resist. Polanski guilty of rape and statutory rape, girl innocent, mother not involved but irresponsible.

2. Samantha may have seduced him, had sex with him willingly. He was a famous film director and she was a precocious, ambitious teenager. It could have been an error of judgement due to the drugs and alcohol followed by guilt and a sense of shock at the reality of what she had done. Polanski guilty of sex with a minor and highly irresponsible, girl highly irresponsible and dishonest after the fact, mother not involved but irresponsible.

3. She could have seduced him at the request of her mother to further her career. Polanski guilty of sex with a minor and highly irresponsible, girl manipulated and guilty, mother guilty.

4. She may have been told by her mother “do whatever he wants, he can make your career” and acted accordingly when the time came not knowing the limits her mother implied in the statement. Polanski guilty of sex with a minor and irresponsible, girl manipulated, mother irresponsible, bad combination of behaviour and poor communication.

5. She could have seduced him knowingly at the request of her mother for the massive settlement she could and did earn. Polanski was an extremely wealthy man. Polanski guilty of sex with a minor and highly irresponsible but also a victim, girl guilty, mother most guilty.

Some of the above scenarios are admittedly more likely than others and no doubt other possibilities exist. None are impossible though.

That Polanski was irresponsible and behaved criminally in having sex with such a young girl is irrefutable. What are unknown are the girl and her mother’s motives and whether they had any influence on his behaviour. What is also unknown is his state of mind at that time. The judge received a probation report and psychiatric evaluation, both indicating that Polanski should not serve jail time:

    “Rittenband responded by ordering the filmmaker to the prison in Chino for a 90-day ‘diagnostic evaluation’ that he said would ‘enable the Court to reach a fair and just decision’. Prison officials released Polanski on January 28 1978, after 42 days and advised the judge that testing indicated his sentence should not include additional prison time. In Rittenband’s chambers with the defence and prosecution present, the judge labelled the prison report ‘a whitewash’ and said he planned to send Polanski back to prison for an additional 48 days if Polanski would voluntarily agree to deportation. Informed of this by his attorney, on February 1 1978, Polanski responded by fleeing to France, just hours before he was to be formally sentenced.”

As mentioned earlier Polanski pleaded guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse and made an out-of-court settlement with Samantha Geimer. In other words, the two of them, through their lawyers, came to an agreement that suited both of them under the circumstances. Polanski fled essentially because he believed the judge was going to overrule this settlement and incarcerate him as an example anyway. My argument here in his favour, which does not absolve him of his actions in any way but serves to explain his flight, is that Roman Polanski was in a good position to judge just how precarious the rights of an individual can be inside a flawed system. He suffered at the hands of the Nazis and his rape trial was a circus.

What about Samantha Geimer? The fact that the trial was a circus and that the judge seemed to be a publicity-hungry nutcase intent on making his name out of the trial may have prejudiced her chances of seeing justice done too. However, she, through her lawyers reached an agreement with Polanski. This agreement took into account the potential trauma of a trial, the amount of damage she felt she had suffered out of the ordeal and matched them with an amount of money that she agreed to accept to settle the matter. We can argue the ethics of older men having sex with very young women from all the yellow countries on the map until the sun explodes, but that fact is telling.

What is unclear is if Polanski ever paid the settlement amount to her. If he has not, that is unforgivable since his problem with the system does not change the fact that he agreed to pay her the money personally to compensate her for her damages and settle the matter. Of course, if one of the entrapment scenarios played out then I understand his reluctance to pay but that does not absolve him of the legal duty to pay it. The fact is disputed and Polanski and Geimer have said nothing since a civil case in 1993 on the payment issue so he may well have paid it without the fact being made public.

Samantha Geimer has spoken out recently and asked for all charges to be dropped and the case to be dismissed.

What do you think?


  • The human brain is made of atoms. Atoms consist primarily of empty space. It is fair to say, therefore, that my head is basically empty. That will please those of you who disagree with what I say until it dawns on you that your head is empty too. So, based on the undeniable fact that our heads are fundamentally comprised of emptiness, is anything we think or say of any real value? Probably not. Remember that next time you are fuming at some point of view contrary to your own. There is no debate that is not worth having. No subject should ever be off limits.