Polanski asks to be sentenced in absentia in 1977 sex case

In a new bid to conclude his long-running criminal case without returning to the U.S., Roman Polanski asked a Los Angeles judge Wednesday to sentence him in absentia for having sex with a 13-year-old girl in 1977.

The request came in a letter presented to the supervising judge of the L.A. County Superior Court’s criminal division during a hearing about the future of the 3-decade-old legal saga in light of an appellate court’s ruling last month.

In the letter signed Dec. 26 in Gstaad, the Swiss ski resort where Polanski is under house arrest, the director wrote, “I request that judgment be pronounced against me in my absence.”

Judge Peter Espinoza accepted the letter, but declined to schedule a sentencing hearing immediately as the filmmaker’s lawyers asked in a court filing. Instead, he told the defense lawyers and a deputy district attorney to submit briefs on whether a sentencing in absentia was appropriate and set a Jan. 22 hearing for arguments.

With the letter, the filmmaker and his lawyers embraced a proposal contained in a Dec. 21 ruling by three state appellate justices. In the decision denying Polanski’s attempt to have the case thrown out on the grounds of prosecutorial and judicial misconduct, the panel from the 2nd District Court of Appeal wrote that a sentencing in absentia would allow a full airing of the allegations without necessitating the director’s return from Europe. They wrote that if the wrongdoing was proved at an evidentiary hearing, Espinoza could give Polanski a sentence of no further time behind bars, bringing the case to an end.

But Espinoza appeared to bristle at the suggestion that the appellate justices told him specifically how to handle the matter. After looking over a defense filing which described the higher court ruling as giving the judge “very clear guidance -- indeed, almost instructions” on how to proceed, Espinoza said he took the appellate court’s proposal for a sentencing in absentia as a recommendation, but not “a directive.”

“I wasn’t directed to do anything,” he said.

He noted that the justices’ ruling mentioned another way to quickly resolve the case -- Polanski could stop fighting extradition.

He “could simply say, ‘I’ll come back’, and come back and bring this to a rapid conclusion,” Espinoza said.

The judge did not rule on a request by Polanski’s attorney to issue subpoenas to depose 10 witnesses, including the original prosecutor in the case, another prosecutor accused of having inappropriate contact with the trial judge during the case and Steve Cooley, the current Los Angeles County district attorney.

Espinoza did order the defense and prosecution to work out a plan to depose one witness who would not be available to testify at a future hearing. The judge and attorneys did not identify the witness or say why the person would not be available later.

In 1977, the 13-year-old aspiring model accused Polanski of raping and sodomizing her during a photo shoot. Under a plea deal with prosecutors, he pleaded guilty to a statutory rape charge, but fled the country on the eve of sentencing. He lived as a fugitive, making his home base in France until September, when he was arrested during a trip to Zurich. Swiss courts are in the process of deciding whether he should be extradited to the U.S.