THE life story of Academy Award-winning director Roman Polanski has as many dark, ambiguous, mysterious twists as his most celebrated films, but his arrest in Switzerland on Saturday for a 32-year-old offense is much more straightforward.
In 1977, a 13-year-old girl reported that, during a photo shoot at actor Jack Nicholson's Mulholland Drive home, Polanski gave her champagne and part of a Quaalude pill, then sexually assaulted her in a hot tub.
In a plea bargain that dismissed five other charges, Polanski admitted he had unlawful sexual intercourse with the girl, and he spent 42 days in jail. After learning the judge intended to renege on an agreement and impose a long prison term, though, Polanski fled to France instead of appearing for sentencing.
His inexcusable crime certainly warranted punishment, and fear that it would be more harsh than expected does not justify fleeing from authorities or carefully skirting arrest over the ensuing decades.
A sexual assault is among the most heinous of crimes, and if the same acts were admitted today, the perpetrator could expect far longer than a month and a half in jail. Moreover, the seriousness of the offense is not reduced either by claims of bias on the part of the judge nor the fact that the victim, who long ago identified herself publicly, has joined Polanski's bid for dismissal.
Since 1978, Polanski has lived in France, where he married, had two children, and continued his career unimpeded. He has traveled freely in some parts of the world and avoided countries likely to extradite him. Although he had been to Switzerland at other times during his exile, after a recent request from the U.S. government, he was picked up there on his way to a film festival.
The honor for his work is warranted and Polanski's films, including Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown, and The Pianist, are a testament to his genius as a director. But the suggestion by French Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand that taking Polanski into custody demonstrates "a scary America that has just shown its face" contradicts the fundamental tenet of American jurisprudence: No one is above the law.