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Gilbert disavows quips on sentencing filmmaker for rape

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Democratic congressional candidate Melissa Gilbert on Wednesday disavowed televised comments she made in 2009 that attempts to sentence filmmaker Roman Polanski for the 1977 rape of a 13-year-old girl were “excessive.”

The Hollywood actress who relocated to Howell to run for Congress in Michigan’s 8th District discussed Polanski’s sentence on “The View” talk show in 2009 as U.S. authorities were trying to get him extradited from Switzerland to serve prison time he evaded three decades earlier.

“I think the punishment at this point may be excessive — I don’t know, that’s just my opinion,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert was part of “The View” panel debating Polanski’s conviction for drugging, raping and sodomizing Samantha Geimer after the 13-year-old girl posed for Polanski during a magazine photo shoot her mother allowed inside the Los Angles home of actor Jack Nicholson.

“Allegedly, he plied her with a Quaalude (sedative) and alcohol and he also pleaded guilty,” actress Joy Behar said on the talk show. “It’s not consensual sex when she was 13 and he was 40.”

Gilbert appeared to disagree in a video clip of the show posted on YouTube this week by Republican political consultant Stu Sandler, who works for the campaign of Gilbert’s rival, U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop, R-Rochester.

“But it’s a gray area when momma’s in the building ... and taking you to this house,” said Gilbert, who starred as Laura Ingalls Wilder in “Little House on the Prairie.”

Gilbert on Wednesday disavowed the seemingly sympathetic comments about Polanski, who still hasn’t served his American sentence while living abroad in France and Poland.

“In hindsight, I recognize that the format of that show got the best of me, and I said something I didn’t mean and don’t believe. I am sorry,” Gilbert said in a statement sent to The Detroit News. “What Roman Polanski did is inexcusable, and he should be brought to justice.

“Too often women fail to come forward when they are raped because they don’t think they will be believed. It is our responsibility to change this culture and recognize we all have an inherent responsibility to protect children. Doing so has been and always will be a focus of my life’s work.”

Republicans have seized on Gilbert’s comments in an effort to damage her candidacy, which has been dogged by more than $470,000 in back taxes she owes the Internal Revenue Service and the state of California.

“Her comments that the punishment may be ‘excessive’ demonstrate how out of touch she is,” Michigan GOP Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel said in a statement. “I am a mother of a teenage daughter, and I believe that there is no punishment too excessive for this kind of crime.”

McDaniel added that Gilbert’s “support for Polanski is appalling and inexcusable, and is one more in a long list of reasons why Melissa Gilbert is unfit to serve in Congress.”

Gilbert was asked about her “gray area” comments regarding the mother of Polanski’s rape victim during a radio interview Wednesday morning on “Michigan’s Big Show.”

“I believe that anyone culpable and anyone knowledgeable, especially the perpetrator though, needs to be brought to justice,” Gilbert told show host Michael Patrick Shiels.

Gilbert’s apology came one day before she is scheduled to speak at a state Capitol rally in favor of proposed legislation that would create a public registry of child abusers.

During the Wednesday radio interview, Gilbert talked about her work “fighting for victims of child abuse” since she was a child actress.

“This is a horrible problem in our country,” Gilbert said. “People I know have been victims of sexual abuse.”

Gilbert’s 2009 comments about Polanski were first reported Tuesday by Detroit News columnist Ingrid Jacques.

Bishop’s campaign appeared to be using the issue to raise money for his re-election bid against Gilbert in the 8th District, which includes Ingham and Livingston counties and northern Oakland County.

A Tuesday morning Bishop campaign email to supporters contained a “Donate Today” button below a copy of Jacques’ column about Gilbert’s Polanski comments.

“Mike Bishop’s moral outrage rings hollow when you notice the giant ‘Donate’ button and realize he’s merely exploiting this to raise money for his political campaign,” said Sacha Haworth, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which is supporting Gilbert’s candidacy.

Separately, Gilbert’s campaign reported Wednesday that it raised $318,901 from 2,903 individual donors during the firth three months of 2016. Gilbert has raised $722,084 from 4,427 donors this election cycle, her campaign said.

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Twitter: @ChadLivengood