Roman Polanski boarded a red-eye out of the country in January 1978, just months after he had agreed to a plea deal to end a Los Angeles County case in which he was accused of raping and sodomizing a 13-year-old girl.
His departure sparked a debate that would stretch over decades — left to be hashed out in books, documentaries, news articles and dueling court motions as Polanski refused to return from France.
FOR THE RECORD
Roman Polanski: An article and timeline that ran in the California section on Dec. 17 said director Roman Polanski made his first bid to have the sexual assault charges against him dismissed in 2008. That happened in 2009.
Was he a sex offender skipping town to avoid facing justice? Or was he a victim of a corrupt judicial system that wanted to make an example of an acclaimed film director?
Now the 81-year-old Polanski is asking a court to publicly evaluate the long-standing legal saga and his allegations of prosecutorial and judicial misconduct. Led by a team that includes legendary attorney Alan Dershowitz, Polanski filed a motion for an evidentiary hearing this week with hopes of having all charges dismissed.
According to court documents, Polanski contends that the Los Angeles County district attorney's office withheld facts from Swiss and Polish authorities during extradition efforts that would have revealed that the filmmaker had already served his punishment. Polanski's lawyers called former Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley the "architect of this scheme."
If a judge agrees to the request at a January court date, the hearing could shed light on a case that divided the entertainment industry.
Laurie Levenson, a Loyola Law School professor and former federal prosecutor who has followed the Polanski case, said the defense has taken a novel approach. One of the most surprising aspects of the filing, she said, was attached email exchanges from 2008 between a judge and the court's public information officer that spotlight "the inner workings of the court."
"It's sort of just throwing all of the alleged misconduct out there and saying you can make it go away by closing Polanski's case," Levenson said. "It's a daring move, to put it mildly, with an approach that tries to taint so many judges of the court."
Levenson said she doubts a judge will reverse course on requiring Polanski to appear in court before a decision is made on his claims. But even if the motion is denied, she predicted the dispute would drag on.
"It's the case that never goes away," she said.
The district attorney's office and the Superior Court declined to comment.
The criminal case dates to spring 1977, when Polanski picked up Samantha Gailey in his rented Mercedes for a purported photo shoot he had been assigned by a Paris fashion magazine. He was 43.
The two arrived at Jack Nicholson's house on Mulholland Drive, where Samantha was plied with champagne and part of a quaalude pill. The junior-high student would later testify that Polanski insisted she be photographed without clothes and asked her repeatedly to join him in the hot tub before forcing her to have sex. The testimony led to a grand jury indictment.
The "Rosemary's Baby" and "Chinatown" director agreed to a plea deal, something prosecutors wanted in order to save the victim from testifying at trial. The terms of the deal called for Polanski to plead guilty to unlawful intercourse with a minor and for Judge Laurence Rittenband to determine the sentence.
Polanski was sent to the state prison in Chino for a 90-day "diagnostic evaluation" that Rittenband said would help the court "reach a fair and just decision" on the filmmaker's punishment. But Polanski was released after 42 days, and prison officials advised the judge that test results showed his sentence should not include additional incarceration. Rittenband, however, said he planned to send the filmmaker back to prison for 48 more days, which prompted Polanski to discreetly hop on a flight out of Los Angeles.
Although sequestered thousands of miles away from Hollywood, he went on to win an Academy Award for best director for "The Pianist," and was still viewed by many as a gifted filmmaker, albeit with a lurid past.
In 1997, Polanski hoped to strike a deal with the district attorney's office to resolve his case. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Larry P. Fidler oversaw the proceedings and said that if Polanski returned to Los Angeles, he would not serve any additional time in custody, according to court documents filed by the defense.
Negotiations, however, eventually fell flat. Polanski's attorney and the original prosecutor later said the judge insisted that any sentencing hearing be televised; the court denied that Fidler made such a declaration.
"The Polanski case was poison," Fidler wrote in a 2008 email to Allan Parachini, a court public information officer, when reporters began asking the court about the television issue. "… The law was on his side because of Rittenband's conduct, I was convinced I was toast if he ever came back and my career would be over. Now there is something I'd want televised. I've told several judges over the years that I had pity for any judge getting that case."
On Tuesday, Parachini told The Times that Fidler's reference to "poison" referred to the previous legal proceedings overseen by Rittenband. "What Fidler was desperately trying to avoid was being tarred by Rittenband's reputation for his handling of Polanski," he said.
Rittenband died in 1993.
Allegations of misconduct in Polanski's case resurfaced in 2008 with the HBO documentary "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired" and with paperwork filed by Polanski with the L.A. court seeking dismissal of his case.
Retired prosecutor Roger Gunson and defense attorney Douglas Dalton said Rittenband sent Polanski to Chino under the guise of diagnostic testing but intended that to be his punishment. Both men said the judge had agreed to set Polanski free after his initial incarceration, but changed his mind.
In denying Polanski's 2008 request to throw out the case, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Peter Espinoza said he believed that there was evidence Polanski was treated unfairly, but that the director would have to return to the States to have the charges dismissed.
Polanski's new motion alleges that Espinoza did not fairly consider the filmmaker's claims but instead followed "marching orders" given by another L.A. County judge on how to handle the matter, which included a requirement that Polanski return to L.A. Polanski refused to come back.
His motion comes on the heels of an attempted extradition from Poland, where Polanski was attending an opening for a museum in October. His attorneys contend that the district attorney's office provided false and incomplete information — omitting the time behind bars that Polanski had served — to Polish government officials to meet the criteria of the country's extradition treaty with the U.S.
The attempt echoed a 2009 endeavor to have Polanski extradited while at a film festival in Switzerland. The director accuses Cooley in his motion of orchestrating that extradition to drum up attention during his run for attorney general.
"It's an urban myth," Cooley told The Times on Tuesday. "Polanski was a nonissue."
Cooley dismissed any claims of misconduct and said the director should resolve the matter by surrendering himself. "I've grown a little tired of him and his lawyers portraying him — a convicted defendant — as a victim," Cooley said.
But Polanski has been seen as just that by supporters, including the woman at the center of the sexual assault case, who now goes by Samantha Geimer. She and Polanski settled a civil suit for six figures, and for years she has said the prosecution should drop its case.
"I'm 100% behind him, and I'd testify at a hearing on his behalf," Geimer, 52, said Tuesday. "I feel the D.A. should investigate their own misconduct. But I'm not hopeful the L.A. courts or D.A.'s office will do the right thing now."