Character v. Behavior

Posted Oct. 04, 2009, at 5:01 p.m.

Good behavior springs from good character, most people would agree. But when bad behavior springs from what seems to be good character, people struggle with a response.

Film director Roman Polanski confessed to nonconsensual sex with a 13-year-old girl in 1977, then fled to Europe the day before he was to accept a negotiated jail term of 42 days. The director, whose work includes “The Pianist,” for which he won the best director Oscar, has been living in exile in Europe ever since. He was arrested Sept. 27 in Switzerland, and U.S. officials are seeking extradition.

Oddly, some in Hollywood and writers, actors and others in the arts world in Europe are defending Mr. Polanski. And even more odd is that they are citing his film work as reason to drop the rape charges.

An Oscar-winning director draws sympathy and elicits calls for forgiveness. What would the response be if Mr. Polanski’s limo driver or gardener faced the same charges?

The plight of former Medway Selectman James Lee is analogous. Mr. Lee has been charged with manslaughter and aggravated driving to danger for a 2008 incident in which police allege he was driving 74 mph on a winding country road that was posted at 45 mph. By the accounts of many, Mr. Lee is a man of good character. Some 32 letters were written to the court describing him in glowing terms, the Bangor Daily News reported. Good character or not, Mr. Lee was cited for 36 traffic violations, including 25 for speeding, between 1986 and 2008.

Would a lighter sentence be sought if a recent transplant from another state had been driving the van that crashed and killed one passenger and severely injured another?

Yet another case comes to mind. In the late 1980s, a popular Waldo County high school gymnastics coach was convicted of having a sexual relationship with one of his student athletes. Supporters, many prominent members of the community where he coached, spoke on his behalf in court.

If the man had been a janitor at the school instead of a coach, would community support emerge?

Character and the sum of one’s life are correctly considered by courts when punishment is meted out. So is the likelihood of reoffense. But the justice system must not respect social, financial or artistic standing. Nor should it disrespect those who have little stature in the community. Behavior — decisions made, actions taken — are what land people in jail and then court. That fact should sway the jury of public opinion.

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