we all love rights of the accused until it’s someone we really don’t like
I think the discussion about Roman Polanski’s recent arrest (and possible extradition) demonstrates how hard it can be to talk civilly about decidedly uncivil things. Personally, I think Polanski is a brilliant filmmaker and a world-class cretin. I’m disgusted by what he did. But I also have great reservations about how we can try him and maintain a full grasp on due process and rights of the accused. The physical evidence is in bad condition;the police who ran his case are mostly dead; the key witnesses are unlikely to cooperate, including the victim; and most importantly, and most concerning, for a democratic society, is that the judge and the prosecuting attorney conspired during the case. That’s a really, really big deal, and contra this piece from Salon, it’s a big deal no matter whether the prosecutors in LA think it’s a big deal or not. That sort of thing absolutely can’t happen in a nation of laws. Can’t.
The problem is that the heinousness of any particular crime should have no bearing on whether we support rights of the accused, but they always do. I imagine that many of the people (most certainly including Bill Wyman from Salon) find the major and uncontested judicial impropriety in this case to be no big deal precisely because of how odious they find Polanski. But it can’t work that way, really, if we respect due process. It’s exactly when we find the defendants most offensive (and damn, Polanski is offensive) that we are most tasked in our defense of rights of the accused.
But this is a conversation that is difficult for us to have. Anyone who has ever argued for due process in any particular instance has found himself being accused of arguing for the defendant, and I’m certainly not doing that. (Although I expect the accusation in the comments in 3, 2, 1….) More often, it’s not explicit accusations against those urging caution but an emotionally charged conversation that keeps coming back to the accusation– “he drugged and raped a child!”– rather than any logically or legally rigorous discussion of the various controversies of the case. Yes, the crime in heinous. But repeatedly mentioning the crime doesn’t change our commitment to due process. Now, whether Polanski”s previous guilty plea means that he has already been afforded due process is a question for legal minds greater than mine, and if it’s determined that he can be punished in a way that is consistent with a full and fair application of due process, I’ll weep no tears for Mr. Polanski. But that’s what’s required, for real justice, and we need to remain clear on that fact.
Incidentally, you’ll find that people are again and again emphasizing that it was anal rape. The term is thrown around again and again despite the fact that, theoretically, that shouldn’t matter– a 13 year old can’t consent to sex, of whatever variety. I think people depending on the salacious power of that word demonstrates the degree that emotion inevitably plays in these cases.