Judges in the United States have hinted that film director Roman Polanski, who is awaiting extradition from Switzerland, may not have to serve time in jail after all.
On Monday an appeal court rejected his bid to have a three-decades-old child-sex case tossed out of court but suggested legal options that could lead to his freedom.
Although the California 2nd District Court of Appeals rejected a request from both Polanski and his victim, Samantha Geimer, to have the 32-year-old case dismissed outright, it said the case had probably been mishandled by the judiciary and prosecution.
“We encourage all participating parties to do their utmost to ensure that this matter now draws to a close in a manner the fully addresses the issues of due process and fundamental fairness raised by the events of long ago,” the court said.
Polanski pleaded guilty to having unlawful sex with a minor in 1977 but fled to France in 1978 before sentencing. He was arrested in Zurich in September 2009 on his way to a film festival and spent more than two months in Swiss prison.
He has been under house arrest in the Swiss resort of Gstaad since December 4 while awaiting possible extradition.
In a 70-page opinion, the three-justice panel said a recent documentary film about Polanski’s case had highlighted in detail possible misconduct on behalf of the justice authorities who handled the original matter. The revelations had “deeply concerned” them but did not excuse Polanski for running.
“No further incarceration”
“Even in light of our fundamental concern about the misconduct flight was not Polanski's only option,” the opinion reads. “It was not even his best option.”
Now other options have presented themselves for the Oscar-winning director. Monday’s ruling opened the door for Polanski, a dual French-Polish national, to have his sentencing proceed in his absence.
Doing so would give a United States judge an opportunity to look at the allegations of possible prosecutorial and judicial misconduct from the original case.
The ruling, written by associate justice Laurie Zelon, said if the evidence is convincing, “we are confident that the trial court could fashion a legal sentence that results in no further incarceration for Polanski”.
To proceed, Polanski would have to write a letter to a Superior Court judge requesting he be sentenced in absentia. Lawyers from neither side are commenting and it is unclear whether he would take that step.
The judge, Peter Espinoza, had said in earlier hearings that Polanski has no rights to certain court processes since he fled. Monday’s ruling supported Espinoza while saying it is at his discretion whether to proceed without the director.
A spokeswoman for the Los Angeles district attorney’s office said the 3-0 ruling is “another step” toward resolving the case, which should be settled with Polanski back on US soil and in court.
Wanted and Desired
Polanski was originally charged with numerous felonies for giving a 13-year-old model alcohol and a sedative and then having sex with her during a photo shoot at actor Jack Nicholson’s Los Angeles house in 1977.
The director, then 43 and famous for movies like Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby, reached a plea bargain on one lesser count of unlawful sex with a minor. He served 42 days in jail for a diagnostic study. That report found him guilty of using bad judgment but that he was no sexual predator.
But Polanski fled to France in 1978 on the eve of appearing in court again because he was reportedly worried that the judge, Laurence J. Rittenband, was going to cancel the plea bargain and sentence him more harshly.
The justices said they had watched a film, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, and quoted passages from a retired deputy district attorney, David Wells, who claimed to have secretly advised Rittenband on Polanski’s original case.
“If Wells’ account is true, Judge Rittenband was ushered along a path of iniquity by an officer of the court with a personal axe to grind and no hesitation to engage in unethical and ex parte communications,” the ruling said.
Wells has since said he lied in the documentary.
Either way, Polanski has options, although he might not like any of them, the court said.
“Polanski is not without any remedy,” it continued. “He is only without the remedy that he prefers: complete release not only from any threat of future punishment but also from the very charges themselves.”
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Born Raymond Polanski to Polish-Jewish parents on August 18, 1933, he spent the first three years of his life in Paris before the family returned to Poland.
He escaped from the Jewish ghetto in Krakow in 1940 as the Germans sealed it off. His mother later died in an Auschwitz gas chamber.
His first full-length feature film after graduation, Knife in the Water, won a number of awards.
In 1969, Polanski's pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, and six others were brutally murdered by followers of cult leader Charles Manson.
Polanski won a best director Oscar for The Pianist in 2003 as well as the Cannes film festival's coveted Palme d'Or for the same film the year before.
Previous extradition attempts
Feb. 3, 1978: Federal authorities confirm Polanski is living in France.
May 3, 1978: Provisional arrest request prepared when officials learn Polanski may be in England.
December 1986: Authorities talk to Canadian police after learning Polanski may be travelling there.
May 1988: Authorities receive notice Polanski may travel to Germany, Denmark, Sweden or Brazil. They confirm warrant is active but no arrest is made.
October 2005: The LA District Attorney's Office tells Interpol Polanski will be in Thailand. He is not arrested.
July 10, 2007: Polanski goes to Israel, but Israelis want more details before making an arrest. By the time the information arrives, Polanski is gone.
Sept. 22, 2009: Swiss inform the US that Polanski is scheduled to appear at a film festival in Zurich. Americans draft a provisional arrest warrant that Swiss authorities execute a few days later.
(Source: Los Angeles District Attorney's Office)