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In Polanski Case, ’70s Culture Collides With Today

Publication Date: 
October 11, 2009
The New York Times
Michael Cieply

Professor Robert Weisberg, an expert in criminal law, is quoted on how laws and sentencing practices have changed in the United States since Roman Polanski was arrested in the 1970s. The New York Times reports:

At the end of “Manhattan,” the celebrated movie romance from 1979, a teenager played by Mariel Hemingway delivers some good news to the 42-year-old television writer, portrayed by Woody Allen, with whom she has had a long-running sexual affair.

“Guess what, I turned 18 the other day,” said Ms. Hemingway, in what was framed as a poignant encounter. “I’m legal, but I’m still a kid.”

That was then.

Roman Polanski’s arrest on Sept. 26 to face a decades-old charge of having sex with a 13-year-old girl stirred global furor over both Mr. Polanski’s original misdeed and the way the authorities have handled it — along with some sharp reminders that, when it comes to adult sex with the under age, things have changed.

Manners, mores and law enforcement have become far less forgiving of sex crimes involving minors in the 31 years since Mr. Polanski was charged with both rape and sodomy involving drugs. He fled rather than face what was to have been a 48-day sentence after he pleaded guilty to unlawful sex with a minor.


Both the law and sentencing practices have changed since Mr. Polanski was arrested. Robert Weisberg, who teaches criminal law at Stanford University’s law school, said Mr. Polanski would face a stiffer punishment now, even for the single unlawful sex charge.

“If he were sentenced for just that crime today, a good prediction would be he would get three years in state prison,” he said.

A shift toward determinate sentencing, Mr. Weisberg pointed out, has sharply reduced the ability of judges to impose lighter punishment, while strengthening the resolve of prosecutors who, in a case like Mr. Polanski’s, cut tougher deals because they are backed by heavier and more definite sentences for each count, and a lessened opportunity to get probation.

Moreover, Mr. Weisberg said, the consideration of Ms. Geimer’s attitude and sexual history — which she was asked about during her grand jury testimony — would be almost unthinkable.

“It’s ghastly to think this could have happened with a 13-year-old,” Mr. Weisberg said in a telephone interview this week. But even with older victims, he said, “it is much harder for a defendant to undermine the complainant on the basis of past sexual history.”