Polanski seeks dismissal of ‘70s child-sex case
Thirty years after he became a fugitive to avoid a prison sentence for having sex with a teenager, Academy Award-winning director Roman Polanski asked a judge Tuesday to dismiss the case.
In the motion filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, lawyers for Polanski alleged “repeated, unlawful and unethical misconduct” by a prosecutor and the trial judge and requested that the charge which prompted him to flee the country be dropped “in the interests of justice.”
Polanski, whose films include “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Chinatown,” acknowledged having sex with a 13-year-old girl in actor Jack Nicholson’s Mulholland Drive home in 1977 and pleaded guilty to a charge of unlawful intercourse with a minor. But the next year, on the eve of his sentencing, which he believed would bring prison time, he fled to London.
The request to dismiss the charge, which took court officials and prosecutors by surprise, is based on revelations in a documentary broadcast in June on HBO. The film, “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired,” portrayed the legal proceeding as hopelessly tainted by backroom dealings between a vindictive judge and a deputy district attorney meddling in his colleagues’ case.
Polanski’s motion draws heavily on the film, with attorneys including a DVD of the documentary, a copy of the script and excerpts of critical reviews in the 239-page filing.
The film “contains indisputable evidence of an ongoing scheme of continuous and pervasive judicial and prosecutorial misconduct in this case,” his lawyers wrote. A hearing is set for Jan. 21 before Judge Peter Espinoza.
The court case 30 years ago attracted massive media attention. Polanski, a French citizen, was a household name both for his movies and for the 1969 murder of his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, by members of the Manson family.
The Polanski case was a blend of Hollywood’s glamorous and tawdry sides: Polanski allegedly plied the victim, an aspiring model, with champagne and Quaaludes and told her that he was photographing her for French Vogue.
The crime scene was a bedroom in the movie star’s house. Actress Anjelica Huston, who was also in the home, was a potential witness.
In the motion, Polanski’s lawyers contend that during the high-profile proceeding, Judge Lawrence Rittenband, now deceased, had improper discussions about the case with David Wells, a deputy district attorney who had been removed from the prosecution.
Wells, now retired, told the documentary makers that he talked to the judge about what sentence Polanski should receive. Under the terms of the plea deal, the judge was to determine sentencing based on the recommendation of the Probation Department and the arguments of lawyers.
Both the Probation Department and the victim recommended that Polanski receive no prison time.
According to court papers, Rittenband wanted to sentence Polanski to prison time, and Wells suggested a way to ensure he spent time behind bars even without the Probation Department’s say-so: A 42-day pre-sentencing “diagnostic testing” in a maximum-security prison.
Polanski served that time, but between the time of his release and the date of his sentencing, the judge indicated to lawyers that he planned to sentence him to 48 additional days in prison, according to the papers.
Polanski left the country before the sentencing and has never returned, even when he won his Academy Award for best director for “The Pianist.”
The motion also cites a conversation in which Wells showed the judge a picture of Polanski celebrating Oktoberfest in Germany surrounded by women and suggested that the director was making a fool of the court.
Wells said his discussions with the judge were in no way inappropriate and dismissed the allegations as irrelevant.
“He asked us a legal question. I gave him a legal answer,” he said in an interview with The Times. “It had nothing in particular to do with the Polanski case, it was a general conversation about what could be done about sentencing anybody.”
Wells, who was the prosecutor on the case during the investigation and for obtaining warrants, also said the photograph he showed the judge was in a German newspaper, and the judge would have seen it whether or not he brought it into court.
“It’s a guy that raped a 13-year-old girl and wants to get no prison time. If that’s the case, [Polanski] should be in state prison for life. That’s how I feel about it, but remember I was not the lawyer on the case,” said Wells, who said he was taken off the case because he became too involved in the investigation and his office feared he might be called as a witness. “If I were the D.A. on the case, he would’ve been tried, and there would’ve been” none of these complications.
The motion also cites a 1997 negotiation involving prosecutors, Polanski’s lawyers and another judge, Larry Paul Fidler. That deal for the director to surrender and immediately be released on bail fell apart.
The documentary suggested the arrangement failed because Fidler insisted the proceeding be televised. Court officials called that “a complete fabrication,” a stance disputed by the original prosecutor and defense lawyer.
A spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office declined to address the specific allegations of misconduct, saying prosecutors had not yet reviewed the motion.
“We are looking forward to seeing Mr. Polanski in the courtroom so we can litigate this case,” said spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons.
Whether Polanski must appear in court to ask for the dismissal appeared to be in dispute. As a fugitive, he would be arrested upon arriving on U.S. soil. A court spokesman said that in past attempts to settle the case -- including the failed 1997 negotiation -- Polanski’s presence in Los Angeles was required.
“It has been the court’s position consistently for several years that in order to pursue dismissal, or sentencing, Mr. Polanski must personally appear,” court spokesman Allan Parachini said in an e-mail.
The district attorney’s office agreed. “We believe that if he is a party to the action, he should be here,” Gibbons said.
But Polanski’s lawyers suggested in court papers that the judge could toss the charge on his own initiative without ever hearing from Polanski.
“Shouldn’t the court decide based on the papers whether Mr. Polanski needs to be present for this request or not,” said Chad Hummel, one of his lawyers.
The victim in the case, Samantha Geimer, now 45 and a mother of four, has said repeatedly and publicly that she thinks Polanski was treated unfairly and expressed a desire for the case to be resolved without prison time.
Reached at her home in Hawaii, she said she welcomed an opportunity to finally end the case. “It’s been a long time,” she said. “I don’t wish for him to be held to further punishment or consequences.”
In 2003, Samantha Geimer, the victim in the Roman Polanski case, wrote an opinion piece in The Times reflecting on her experience. Latimes .com/geimer.