Unsealed transcripts open door to end of Roman Polanski’s 45-year legal saga in the U.S.
A Los Angeles County judge intended to sentence Roman Polanski to only 90 days in prison for sexually abusing a child in 1977, according to court transcripts made public for the first time this weekend that bolster the Oscar-winning director’s chances of terminating his status as a fugitive.
Polanski, 88, fled the U.S. four decades ago after pleading guilty to one count of unlawful intercourse with a minor, following allegations he drugged and assaulted a 13-year-old girl at the home of actor Jack Nicholson. The director was initially sentenced to a 90-day “diagnostic evaluation” while a judge contemplated his fate, but corrections officials decided to release Polanski from state prison after just six weeks in custody.
For years, Polanski’s attorneys have argued that sealed court records would prove that L.A. County Superior Court Judge Laurence Rittenband intended the 90-day sentence to be the director’s full punishment and that he fled the country out of fear of intense media pressure, leading Rittenband to renege on the plea deal.
The transcripts made public Monday validate those claims.
Polanski’s legal team lost a prior bid to unseal the records, and prosecutors have long opposed making them public. But Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón last week joined a motion to unseal the records. An appellate court ordered them to be made public the next day.
The unsealed transcripts contain testimony from retired Deputy Dist. Atty. Roger Gunson, the prosecutor initially assigned to Polanski’s case in 1977. The testimony, taken in 2010 to preserve evidence for future proceedings against Polanski, included Gunson’s summary of a meeting he had with Rittenband and Polanski’s attorney at the time to discuss a plea deal in the sexual assault case.
“My recollection is that he said this case is worth 90 days. ‘I’m going to send him for 90 days, but I’m not going to send him to county jail,’” Rittenband said, according to Gunson’s testimony.
Polanski had initially been charged with rape after he plied 13-year-old Samantha Geimer with champagne and drugs before forcing himself on her. Gunson described the sentence as extremely lenient and questioned probation reports issued at the time that described the sexual encounter between the director, then 43, and the girl as consensual.
The Times normally does not identify victims of sexual assault. But Geimer has spoken out about the case repeatedly and in recent years also called for Gunson’s testimony to be made public.
Rittenband allegedly told Gunson and defense attorney Doug Dalton that he had already decided to sentence Polanski to time served but “didn’t want the public or press” to know that was his decision, according to Gunson.
Gunson could not be reached for comment. Rittenband died in 1993.
Polanski’s defense attorney, Harland Braun, said Monday he believes the transcripts prove that the director served the necessary prison time as stipulated by his 1977 plea. Braun plans to file a motion to have Polanski sentenced in absentia in the coming weeks, which could quash the warrant for his arrest in the U.S.
While it is not clear if Polanski intends to return, the quashing of the warrant would allow him to travel freely to countries that have extradition treaties with the U.S.
Prosecutors could seek to charge Polanski with being a fugitive from justice if he were to return to the U.S. But legal experts say it is unlikely Gascón would see any public safety benefit to putting the 88-year-old Polanski in prison if he did return.
Ricardo Santiago, a spokesman for the district attorney’s office, said prosecutors removed their objection to the unsealing of the transcripts because Gascón believed they were public records.
“We chose to remove our objection to the unsealing of the transcripts to ensure there was transparency in these proceedings and to make sure the victim received the answers that she deserved,” Santiago said in an email. “Mr. Polanski must surrender himself to be sentenced. Sentencing is within the Court’s discretion.”
Prosecutors have previously said the filing of fugitive charges was still possible, though the office would need to review why such a filing was not made by prior administrations.
In the transcripts, Gunson said the office’s long-held position was that it would not make any commitments about future prison time for Polanski until he appeared in a Los Angeles courtroom.
Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor and professor at the Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said that while putting Polanski in prison would make little sense given his age and the complicated history of his case, allowing him to sidestep fugitive charges could undermine the court’s authority.
“There is the broader, up-the-line issue of whether people can avoid justice by taking off,” she said.
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