Sentences in statutory rape convictions like Roman Polanski's are now longer

Statutory rape convictions similar to Roman Polanski's typically result in sentences at least four times longer today than the 90-day punishment a judge favored before the director fled the United States in 1978, a Times analysis of Los Angeles County court records shows.

Polanski's arrest in Switzerland on an international fugitive warrant -- and his pending extradition proceedings -- have sparked transatlantic debate about whether the 76-year-old Academy Award winner should serve additional time behind bars for having sex with a 13-year-old girl.

His supporters have argued against any further incarceration while detractors have said that the disturbing details of his case -- the victim accused him of raping and sodomizing her as she pleaded with him to stop -- merit years or even decades in prison.

The Times analyzed sentencing data to determine how L.A. County courts today handle cases in which men admit to statutory rape -- also known as unlawful sex with a minor -- in exchange for the dismissal of more serious rape charges, as Polanski did. The findings show that those defendants get more time than Polanski has served -- even factoring in his 70-day stint in Swiss detention -- but less than his critics may expect.

Since 2004, there have been 50 cases in L.A. County that mirror the procedural contours of Polanski's. In 72% of those cases, the defendant got a sentence of a year or more.

Although comparable statistics are not available for the 1970s, figures cited at the time by Polanski's attorney indicate that no one convicted of unlawful sex with a minor then went to prison and more than a quarter of defendants didn't see any time behind bars at all.

"Thirty years ago, sexual assault -- rape and sex crimes -- were treated differently," said Robin Sax, a former sex crimes prosecutor for the L.A. County district attorney's office. "Time and education haven't worked for Polanski's benefit."

Polanski is scheduled to be moved from Swiss custody to house arrest at his Gstaad chalet this afternoon.

How Polanski would be treated if he does return to the United States is impossible to predict. Sentencing is more art than science, experts say, and depends heavily on the unique circumstances of each case.

Because of a complicated set of rules that take into account changes in the law since 1977, the maximum sentence Polanski faces is two years in prison.

In the cases The Times reviewed, the sentences were the product of plea negotiations between prosecutors and defense attorneys, with the judge's role limited to signing off on the deals.

In Polanski's case, a judge would determine the sentence. Polanski's attorney is expected to argue for his immediate release as is the victim, who has publicly forgiven the director. The district attorney's office has declined to say what sentence it would seek. In 1977, the prosecutor asked for an unspecified period in custody.

The judge could weigh factors in Polanski's favor -- his otherwise pristine criminal record, advanced age and the victim's wishes -- versus those against him -- the victim's youth, the allegation that he plied her with champagne and gave her part of a Quaalude, and his years as a fugitive.

Although Polanski was originally charged with serious crimes, including rape and sodomy, the charge he ultimately pleaded guilty to is among the least serious of sex crimes. Those convicted of unlawful sex with a minor are not required to register as sex offenders, and in some cases, receive only probation.

Nearly 800 people convicted of a single felony count of the charge have been sentenced since 2004. Although the convictions were identical, their sentences varied widely, depending on what prosecutors had originally accused them of doing, according to an analysis of court data provided by the district attorney's office.

Most defendants charged with only a single count of unlawful sex were either released on probation or sentenced to 90 days or less in jail. In one typical case, a Los Angeles man received three days in jail for having sex with his 16-year-old girlfriend when he was 20. Authorities were alerted after the girl gave birth to a son. By the time the man was sentenced earlier this year, they had married.

By contrast, the 50 offenders who, like Polanski, were initially charged with rape, received much harsher punishments, even after the rape charges were dropped.

In 42% of those cases, defendants were sentenced to at least 16 months in prison, where the most serious offenders are housed. Many of those defendants had criminal records, which Polanski does not.

In all but one of the remaining cases, the offenders were sent to jail. The median sentence was a year, the maximum possible in a county facility.

In July 2005, Jose Antonio Trujillo, a 43-year-old forklift operator from Norwalk, met a 15-year-old girl in the sauna of his gym, according to court records.

The teenager testified that she told him that her father had thrown her out of the house and that she had no money or anything to eat. Trujillo offered to buy her dinner and later rented a motel room.

The girl told the court that their room had separate beds but that Trujillo climbed into hers in the middle of the night and forced himself on her.

"I told him to stop because it hurt," she testified. "I didn't know if he was going to kill me."

Trujillo was charged with rape and other serious sex crimes. In court, his attorney questioned the girl's account, saying that she did not immediately report being raped.

Trujillo pleaded no contest to unlawful sex with a minor and was sentenced to a year in jail. He was deported after his release.

In a case originally charged as a rape or other serious sex crime, an unlawful sex conviction is often the result of a plea bargain between a prosecutor with a difficult case to prove and a defendant who wants to settle the matter without risking a long stretch behind bars, according to experts and a review of case files.

In a 2004 case, Paul Van Ness, a music professor at Cal State Los Angeles, was charged with sodomy, oral copulation and other sex acts with a 15-year-old student. Van Ness, then 57, pleaded no contest to one felony count of unlawful sex with a minor as part of a deal with prosecutors that saw the other charges dismissed. He was sentenced to one year in jail.

On the day Van Ness surrendered to serve his jail time, his teenage victim criticized the sentence and told the court that she would live with the psychological effects of his crime long after he was freed.

"One year of being incarcerated is far too inadequate," she said. "Unfortunately, there does not exist any legal punishment harsh enough."

But his attorney, Gerson S. Horn, contended that the punishment was appropriate. He said that the professor and the victim were in a relationship that stretched more than a year and that no force was used.

In a recent interview, Horn cited parallels between the Van Ness and Polanski cases. He said a psychological study showed that Van Ness was not a risk to children. A similar study of Polanski in 1977 found that he was not a "mentally disordered sex offender." Both men had clean criminal records.

"Polanski should be treated no differently," Horn said. "A suitable time in the county jail would be sufficient."

In the director's case, the prosecutor had difficulty pursuing rape, sodomy and other serious charges because the victim did not want to testify at a trial. Superior Court Judge Laurence J. Rittenband sent the director to the state prison in Chino for 90 days of pre-sentencing diagnostic testing that the filmmaker's attorneys say was meant to serve as his sentence. The prison released Polanski after 42 days and advised the judge that testing indicated that he should spend no more time behind bars.

Rittenband criticized the report and signaled that he planned to sentence Polanski to serve the remainder of the 90 days if he voluntarily agreed to deportation. Informed of this by his attorney, Polanski fled the country, seeking refuge in France.

jack.leonard@latimes.com

harriet.ryan@latimes.com

doug.smith@latimes.com

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