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The Celebrity Defense

Publication Date: 
December 14, 2009
The New Yorker
Jeffrey Toobin

Professor Robert Weisberg discusses the change in criminal sentencing policy that has occurred since film director Roman Polanski was first accused of statutory rape and subsequently fled the country to avoid prosecution, in this New Yorker article by Jeffrey Toobin:

On the morning of March 11, 1977, Detective Philip Vannatter, of the Los Angeles Police Department, arrived at his desk in the West L.A. division to find a report that had been placed there a few hours earlier. The document recounted how patrol officers had gone to the home of Samantha Gailey, a thirteen-year-old girl who lived in the San Fernando Valley, after her mother called police to say that Samantha had been raped by Roman Polanski, the movie director, who was forty-four at the time.


"But the case did not end there, and, almost thirty-three years later, it's still not over. On March 24, 1977, a Los Angeles County grand jury indicted Polanski on six felony counts, including rape by use of drugs and furnishing a controlled substance to a minor. On August 8, 1977, pursuant to a plea bargain, Polanski pleaded guilty to the least serious of the charges against him, having unlawful sex with a minor-statutory rape. On the eve of his sentencing hearing, which was scheduled for February 1, 1978, Polanski fled to Europe, and he has not returned.

Earlier this year, on September 26th, he was detained in Switzerland after American authorities made a provisional request for his arrest. Last week, Polanski's lawyers provided the deed to his apartment in Paris, the final piece of security to raise $4.5 million for a bail package that had been approved by the local courts. Under the terms of the arrangement, Polanski was then released to house arrest at his chalet, known as Milky Way, in the Swiss ski resort of Gstaad, having spent sixty-seven days in a Zurich detention center. The large amount of bail, and a requirement for him to wear an electronic monitoring bracelet, might seem extreme for a seventy-six-year-old man; but, considering that Polanski is one of the most famous fugitives from American justice in the world, his release from prison under any terms at all may seem like a generous deal for him.


Since the nineteen-seventies, in California and elsewhere, criminal sentencing has changed dramatically, particularly with regard to the role of the judge. "California used to have a wide-open system, where the law gave the judge a lot of discretion about how long to sentence someone," Robert Weisberg, a professor at Stanford Law School, said. That system, which was known as "indeterminate sentencing," evolved into the current, very different regime, which is known as "determinate sentencing." Judges now have far less latitude, and discretionary parole has been abolished for most crimes in California. Sentences are more severe. Today, an adult defendant who pleaded guilty to statutory rape in California would likely receive about three years in state prison.