Mendo’s Polanksi?

by Tim Stelloh, December 15, 2009

Smith & Polanksi

I just finished Jeffrey Toobin's excellent—if totally disturbing—piece in last week's New Yorker on Roman Polanksi and was reminded of Clint Smith, the Willits high school teacher who carried on a nearly year-long extramarital affair with his 15-year-old student.

To be sure, the cases are different in fundamental ways: the first is about rape, the other is about statutory rape; and where Polanski seems to be in denial about what he did—essentially describing the event in his autobiography as consensual, or to use his grotesquely calculating language, “she wasn't unresponsive”—Smith admitted guilt and apologized.

But the stories of Polanski and Smith also share an unsettling similarity.

To recap: in March 1977, Polanski, then 44, got a 13-year-old girl whom he'd been photographing for Vogue Hommes drunk on champagne and drugged on quaaludes. Then, according to grand jury testimony the girl gave after the incident, he raped her. Polanski pleaded down to felony statutory rape (the least serious of the charges against him) but split to Europe before sentencing. He was a fugitive until earlier this year, when the Swiss arrested and agreed to extradite him.

After Polanski's recent arrest in Switzerland, a group of celebs, artistes and other notables rushed to his defense. Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh, Mike Nichols, Salman Rushdie, Pedro Almodóvar and others signed Free Polanksi petitions. French President Nicolas Sarkozy said his arrest was “not a good administration of justice.” Whoopie Goldeberg said that Polanski's crime hadn't constituted real rape (it wasn't “rape-rape,” to use her term).

Clint Smith—who was 38 at the time of the affair—had his own vocal cadre of apologists. They showed up to court hearings, they wrote letters to the judge and letters to the editor, they spoke at his sentencing. Smith, they argued, had already been damaged enough by the stigma attached to his crime; jail, they argued, wasn't necessary. Therapists argued that he wasn't predatory, that he needed rehab, and that he certainly wouldn't get that behind bars. (To buttress the argument, one of the therapists hired by Smith made the amazing claim that Smith—who'd used Viagra for better performance, who'd sent videos of himself masturbating to the student, who'd had sex with the student in the parking lot of a Willits bank—had already been 85 percent rehabilitated since beginning therapy after his arrest.)

Polanksi and Smith, in other words, were so exceptional that the rules typically attached to law-breaking “stone perverts”—as the 15-year-old's mother referred to Smith—just didn't apply.

In the Polanksi case, this argument appears to have backfired; as Toobin notes, the Hollywood petitions never mentioned the facts of the case. “Columnists across the political spectrum, from feminists on the left to conservatives on the right, found common cause in revulsion at both Polanski and his famous friends. Katha Pollitt wrote in the Nation, “It's enraging that literary superstars who go on and on about human dignity, and human rights, and even women's rights (at least when the women are Muslim) either don't see what Polanski did as rape or don't care, because he is, after all, Polanksi—an artist like themselves.”

Mendocino County isn't exactly a cross-section of the culture at large. So with Smith, that revulsion just didn't materialize (the pages of this newspaper notwithstanding). Though he'd been charged with lewd and lascivious acts with a child; oral copulation with a child under the age of 16; sexual penetration with a foreign object; sexual intercourse with a minor; and providing harmful matter to a minor with the intent of seduction, Judge Clayton Brennan found Smith guilty of one count of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor. He gave him six months in county jail and a pass on registering as a sex offender.

What does this say about Mendo's justice system? Commit a crime as repugnant and serious as Smith's and if you've got enough friends—and a good lawyer—a slap on the wrist is all you'll get.

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