Swiss refuse extradition, free Polanski

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The Swiss government’s decision Monday to free Roman Polanski outraged Los Angeles prosecutors and U.S. officials but effectively ended a legal odyssey that has lurched along with periodic eruptions of public furor since 1977, when the famed director was accused of raping a 13-year-old girl.

Polanski will not be extradited to the United States to face sentencing for having unlawful sex with the girl , allowing him to live freely in Switzerland and France, where he has resided since he fled the United States 32 years ago.

Swiss justice officials said the U.S. failed to turn over documents they had requested. They also said Polanski, who has a vacation home in Switzerland, would not have expected to be arrested and deported because American officials knew of his frequent presence there in recent years but never acted on it.

In Los Angeles and Washington, officials vowed to continue their pursuit of Polanski, though their options are now significantly limited.

“A 13-year-old girl was drugged and raped,” State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said. “This is not a matter of technicality.”

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, who led the effort to bring Polanski back to the U.S., said he was dumbfounded.

“Mr. Polanski is still convicted of serious child sex charges,” Cooley said. “The Swiss could not have found a smaller hook on which to hang their hat.”

He said he would seek extradition again if Polanski is arrested in any other country where U.S. officials have extradition treaties in place.

But Samantha Geimer, the victim in the case who has publicly forgiven Polanski, said she hopes this finally brings the issue to a close.

“I hope that the D.A.’s office will now have this case dismissed and finally put the matter to rest once and for all,” she said in an e-mail.

Polanski’s whereabouts were unknown Monday. Swiss authorities said they turned off the electronic monitoring bracelet that he had to wear during his seven months of house arrest at his three-story villa in the ski resort town of Gstaad.

“He can go to France or to Poland, anywhere he will not be arrested,” Swiss Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf said at a news conference.

The director has been in Swiss custody since September, when police arrested him on his arrival in Zurich to accept a lifetime achievement award at the local film festival. The arrest was performed at Cooley’s request, and reignited debate from Paris to Hollywood over the fugitive director’s case.

For all the legal maneuvering and spectacle of recent months, both sides are basically where they were in 1978, with the district attorney refusing to let the case go and Polanski refusing to come back.

In April, the 2nd District Court of Appeal rejected Polanski’s request to be sentenced in absentia to time served.

The legal argument that has dragged the case along for more than a generation hinges on whether Polanski already served his time.

Before Polanski’s sentencing in 1977, Judge Laurence J. Rittenband ordered him to undergo a 90-day psychiatric study at the state prison in Chino. The prosecutor and Polanski’s attorney understood that this time in the prison would serve as Polanski’s punishment.

Polanski reported to Chino and was released after 42 days. But Rittenband then told the attorneys in private that he wanted Polanski to finish the 90 days — and then leave the country. If he didn’t leave, he’d get even more prison time.

Hearing this, Polanski fled.

His attorney, Douglas Dalton, alleged misconduct by the judge. He argued that Rittenband improperly used the psychiatric study to incarcerate Polanski, that he had no authority to compel his deportation and that he was letting media coverage and public outcry influence his decisions. The prosecutor, Roger Gunson, would later say he agreed that the judge was acting in bad faith.

Most recently, Polanski’s attorneys were trying to get a Los Angeles judge to unseal recent testimony by Gunson that they thought would help them fight the extradition request. They argued that the transcripts would show the 90-day study was meant to be his full term in prison. By that time, Polanski had served a total of 112 days, including 70 days in a Swiss jail.

In denying the extradition request, Swiss officials said there were significant questions about whether the 42 days Polanski had already spent in Chino would have been considered sufficient time served for having sex with a minor.

And they added that, until 2009, the U.S. had not filed any extradition request against Polanski “for years,” even though it knew he had bought a house in Switzerland in 2006 and was a regular visitor there. That gave the director a reasonable expectation that he was not under threat of arrest and deportation from there. (U.S. officials said they alerted Swiss officials when they learned Polanski was attending a film festival last fall, and Swiss police arrested the director when he got off his plane.)

Guido Balmer, a spokesman for the Swiss justice ministry, said Switzerland deals with about 200 extradition cases a year. About 95% of extradition requests are granted; among the 5% that are denied, the most common reasons are that the alleged crime in the defendant’s home country is not a crime in Switzerland or, as in Polanski’s case, the extradition request is considered flawed.

Peter Cosandey, a former prosecutor in Zurich with experience in extradition cases, said that, on the face of it, the ministry’s decision not to extradite Polanski “makes sense” legally and administratively.

If there was a strong possibility at the time that the director’s 42 days in jail in Los Angeles was going to be declared a sufficient sentence, then the argument for his extradition suddenly loses a major pillar, Cosandey said. In other words, why send him back to Los Angeles if he’s already served out his likely sentence?

Supporters of the Oscar-winning director were elated at news of his release Monday.

“The great Franco-Polish director will from now on be able to freely meet with his family and dedicate himself to the pursuit of his artistic activities,” said the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, adding that he was “delighted” by the decision.

But Laura Sweeney, a spokeswoman at the U.S. Department of Justice, which helps process extradition requests, said federal prosecutors are “very disappointed in the decision by the Swiss government.”

“Whenever the United States seeks an individual’s extradition, we do so on the basis that our request is supported by the facts and the terms of our treaty,” she said. “That is true in this case as well. We believe the extradition request submitted by the United States was fully supported by the evidence, met the requirements of the extradition treaty, and involved a serious offense.”

Polanski won support from some film industry directors and actors, who argued that he served enough time for the crime. But children’s advocates said it’s wrong for the director to go free.

“Any day that a justice ministry fails to act … to protect children instead of child perpetrators is a sad day,” said Kristine Ward, of the National Survivor Advocates Coalition. “Unfortunately, when those who are in public eye because of fame and fortune or authority positions do not face the consequences of their actions, a strong signal is sent that justice is winking under her blindfold.”


Times staff writers Paul Richter and Richard A. Serrano in Washington, and Richard Winton and Andrew Blankstein in Los Angeles contributed to this report.