Monday, February 1, 2010

Is There a Place for Forgiveness ?: The Polanski Case

Many of us are now probably familiar with the Roman Polanski rape case. In 1977 Polanski was convicted of having “unlawful sex with a minor.” Reading through the transcripts of the victim, 13 year-old Samantha Geimer, one learns that Polanski gave the girl a quaalude and champagne before engaging in sexual intercourse with her. According to her testimony, she repeatedly told him “no” and resisted his sexual advances. After a lengthy trial, which ended with much still up in the air, Polanski fled to Europe. He has been living there for over 30 years (For a nice summary see here)

So what makes this case interesting for those interested in Religion and American Law? In 1997, Geimer publicly “forgave” Polanski. For one interested in the intersection of religion and law, the case raises the important question: Does forgiveness, a nominally Christian concept and virtue, have a place in the American law system? Many people’s immediate reaction is probably to say no. And this most likely reflects a general understanding of how crime is dealt with in the U.S. legal system (This is specifically talked about here). Our law centers, in general, around a retributive form of justice, one in which criminals have to “pay” for their crime with their time, labor, or life. Forgiveness flies in the face of this form of justice. Even if forgiveness occurs, some might claim, it cannot stand in place of punishment

Public reaction to Polanski has been mixed to say the least. Many celebrities have stood up for him. During the 2003 Oscars, for example, he received a standing ovation from the audience when he won for Best Director for his film The Pianist. Some feminist thinkers have reacted strongly as well (Check out the reaction at feministing). Many of the proponents of his arrest claim that he has been able to evade facing his crimes because of his celebrity status. If we do not seek to punish him to the fullest extent of the law then we are, as a society, authorizing his crime. They argue that it begins to look like rape is permissible as long as you can make a good movie. How can we as a society allow this?

In a more sympathetic portrayal of Polanski’s life, the film Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired describes Polanski’s struggle for survival after his mother as killed in the holocaust and the Manson family murdered his wife. This story might lead one to think that while Polanski committed a terrible crime, it is reasonable to feel sympathy for him.

To make matters more interesting, Samantha Geimer has fought to have the case dropped since Polanski’s recent rearrest in Switzerland. It appears she has moved on since forgiving Polanski back in 1994 and wants everyone else to as well. Perhaps her forgiveness is not “pure,” in the sense that she has extended a sympathetic embrace to him, but I think most would be hard pressed to find a pure form of forgiveness. In either case, Geimer's attempt to have the charges dropped might make us reconsider whether forgiveness should have a place in the law. If both the victim and the perpetrator are ready to move on, why should the law stand in their way?

The point of this short blog is not to advocate releasing Polanski’s case being dropped, nor to advocate punishing him to the fullest extent of the law. Instead, it is to point to the ambiguity that a victims forgiveness brings into the law, and to have shown how it might not always be clear whether punishment or forgiveness is the best route to take. Further, this case also raises the issue of whether forgiveness permissible in the legal arena. Is it a purely “religious” concept? And what role do nominally Christian or religious concepts play in society more generally?


Christa L said...

This is an interesting problem. After all, historically speaking (as we see in Gordon's The Mormon Question), law in America has a close association with Protestant humanitarianism, so why would forgiveness not be a provision of the law (perhaps because it has not been included in common law?).

On the other hand, though, isn't there a theory of "crime against the state" in criminal law? If that is the case, the victim's forgiveness wouldn't matter. Only the state's forgiveness (which is embodied in an executive pardon, right?) would matter. It seems here the question may be centered more around who actually counts as the "victim" of the crime (the individual or the state/society).

John S. said...

You bring up an interesting question. Ultimately the law is the law, and in Polanski's case, no laws have changed that would impact his crime, nor have any prevailing attitudes toward drugging underage women and forcibly having sex with them. Legally, the case no longer has anything to do with the initial complaint, as it is now a matter of state concern, so forgiveness doesn't apply in this case, legally.
However, to consider such an alteration in thinking would seem to require a sea change in attitudes toward transgression, in general. Gesturing toward forgiveness would seem to be a gesture toward common sense approaches to crime and punishment vs. the cookie cutter application of law where many reasonable circumstances are not applicable. Also, forgiveness seems to fly in the face of our current system which cannot seem to forgive or forget crimes and criminals even after they have served their time. Even after you do your time you have not repaid your debt to society with gun ownership, travel, voting rights, job prospects and many other consequences continually applying for life. It’s hard to consider the possibility of forgiveness if doing the time you are convicted for is not even enough - especially if you have the designation of sex offender, after which you are branded for life regardless of the nature of the crime in many cases.
In Polanski's case, it seems that gestures toward forgiveness do indeed stem from celebrity and likely race. If a non-famous African-American male engaged in the identical crime to Polanski and fled to another country the sentiment would likely be very different, even if that same man’s wife had been gunned down by gang members and his mother had been persecuted under Jim Crow. The people of the United States and the law have historically not been in the forgiveness business unless the person in question is famous, wealthy or connected to someone with the above qualities - and the only religious sentiment that may apply is not Christian/Protestant undergirding, but the cult of celebrity and similar worship.

Abby P said...

You have certainly outlined some very interesting and important questions regarding forgiveness and its application in American law today. In my opinion forgiveness may not necessarily simply be a Christian phenomenon. Other individuals who do not identify themselves with Christianity have been known to offer forgiveness when they see fit. However, in regard to the law, I personally believe that forgiveness cannot act as an alternative to a punishment. If a person commits a crime they should be subject to the full extent of the law. If the victim wishes to forgive the alleged criminal, that is his/her prerogative. However, this forgiveness should in no way exempt the individual from punishment. Allowing forgiveness in the realm of law could create a slippery slope in which individuals convicted of heinous crimes could be released due to a forgiving victim. Although forgiveness may not be strictly limited to religious individuals; I believe that it should be separate from the law.

Vincent said...

It seems troubling (e.g., in the previous comments) to transform "the law" into a monolithic entity ("the law is the law", etc.). Police and prosecutes use their discretion in every decision they make, and frequently the way that discretion is used is informed by what a "victim" thinks.

Of course, it is equally troubling to imagine "forgiveness" as a monolithic entity. It's not like pregnancy, where you either are or aren't, do or don't. People are equivocal, have complex motivations, and say and do contradictory things. We should be just as suspicious of public proclamations of forgiveness as we should be of "victims" fixated on their injury.

What "Christian culture" does is turn "law" and "forgiveness" into monolithic entities, forcing the supposed choice. It's a problem when those who are constantly exercising discretion (police, prosecutors, judges, etc.) are captured by these images of law and forgiveness, and so are not able to assess the complexities of the alleged crime and its impact.

In this particular case, another, but equally problematic imagery, of the innocent child, the innocent woman, and the lecherous artist, also seems to be at work -- and I suspect this imagery also has a Christian provenance. But it's hopeless, and hopelessly frustrating, to try to finish the work of cultural secularization. Rallying around a call for official legal recognition of forgiveness seems like a much more effective strategy for those troubled by the injustices secularized religion causes (though this is probably the wrong case to use to push for such a change).

Justin M said...

I believe that the issue of forgiveness in this case is interesting for a separate reason. When examining the circumstances of the case, the motives of the victim’s forgiveness are not clear. It is easy to say, as many celebrities did, that because the victim forgave Polanski, he should no longer be subject to the law. However, is this undoubtedly the reason why Samantha Geimer ‘forgave’ Roman Polanski? Considering that the crime took place in 1977, it seems to be reasonable that Geimer may have issued her forgiveness in the hopes of simply moving on with her life after experiencing three decades of anguish. In the eyes of the State, this possibility may not allow for the issuing of “forgiveness” to be sufficient for allowing Polanski to go free.

Claire said...

I agree with Christa, that the question is “who actually counts as the victim of the crime (the individual or the society)?” I think that true forgiveness is a human characteristic that cannot be shared by the state. The state can certainly pardon a person, but pardoning is different than forgiving. Since the human can forgive, but only the state can punish, I do not think that forgiveness has a place in American Law system.

Rachel B said...

I believe that I have to respectfully disagree with some of the comments posted above. While forgiveness is certainly not written into the law in the literal sense, it can and sometimes does play a part. In many instances, “victims” will choose not to formally press charges, or will later drop the charges made against the accused. In essence, the victim is forgiving of his/her offender and therefore forgiveness is absolutely entangled with law. Furthermore, it could be argued that a granting a pardon is no different than the act of forgiving. It is essentially a second chance, a “do-over.” To provide another example, if the jury decides to find someone not guilty, is this not forgiving a person of the crimes of which they are accused? The language might be different, but the concepts seem to be the same.

Gavin C. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gavin C. said...

The Polanski case raises interesting questions concerning the relationships between forgiveness and guilt and between religion and law in the US. There can be no doubt that forgiveness plays a formative role in Christian beliefs and practices. However, forgiveness seems to have more power over the forgiver than the forgiven. The forgiver, as a Christian, defers judgment of those who have wronged him or her to God. This act frees the forgiver of the sins that have been committed against him or her, yet the guilty assailant remains to be judged upon death. This understanding of forgiveness is, of course, a theological understanding, and if the Court were in the business of ruling on theological matters, Geimer’s forgiveness might carry weight in the case.
It is, however, not the role of the Court to pass judgment on theological matters; rather, its role is to pass judgment on the laws written by Congress. Under these laws, sex with a minor is rape, and at the risk of being too blatant, rape is an egregious crime that is only made worse by the fact that Polanski drugged Geimer before raping her. Polanski’s crime is compounded by the fact that he has been a fugitive for so long. It seems obvious that the court should apply the harshest sentence possible to this case. However, because the sentencing judge is at liberty to take Geimer’s statement of forgiveness under advisement, and because the judge may be otherwise influenced by his or her own religious views, it is possible that religion could play a role in Polanski’s sentencing.
If Polanski is given a lighter sentence because of Geimer's statement, the question of separation between religion and law will need to be re-examined once more.

Kerry S said...

These are all very interesting comments and I would just like to reiterate some points and add a few thoughts. I agree that while reaching forgiveness may be all that the victim needs to move on from her horrific experience, it sets a very dangerous precedent for future cases. Additionally, Polanski ran away to a foreign country to escape prosecution which also does not sit well with me. Regardless of dual citizenship, Polanski was in the United States when he committed his crime and is thus subject to US jurisdiction. Josh brought up the idea that Polanski might be receiving "special treatment" because he is a celebrity. While it would be just as wrong to use Polanski's punishment as an "example" because of its notoriety, it would be equally wrong for him to slip by because of his profession.