In January 1978, Roman Polanski bought the last seat on a British Airways flight to London and never came back.
The celebrated director of “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Chinatown” was out of jail after a 42-day psychiatric evaluation. He faced a likely 48 more days to complete his sentence after a guilty plea to having sexual intercourse with a minor, though he feared he could face far more time behind bars.
By fleeing instead of facing his time, Polanski began a four-decade legal saga that also served as a sharp cultural divide between Europe, where he was welcomed as an artist, and the United States, where he was a wanted man.
On Friday, however, the “case that never goes away” appeared close to being over.
A Polish appeals court ruled that Polanski would not be extradited to the United States to face sentencing. This came several years after Swiss officials made the same decision.
Former Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, who initiated the first of two cross-Atlantic extradition attempts, conceded that there is now little chance of any government turning over Polanski, who has retained his enormous popularity in Europe.
“I doubt at this stage he will ever be returned here,” Cooley said. “Basically, short of him landing in the U.S., I don’t see a government extraditing him at this stage.”
But the end of the case does not mean Polanski, 82, is free to travel.
“His life is pretty much limited to three countries that embrace him: France, Poland and Switzerland,” said former federal prosecutor Laurie Levenson, a Loyola Law School professor who has followed the case.
The prospect of arrest kept Polanski from appearing in person to accept the 2002 best director Oscar for “The Pianist,” his saga of an indomitable Jewish musician living in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II.
He will also have to stay away should his latest film, based on the Dreyfus affair, an infamous 19th century French scandal, be honored.
He is filming it in Poland, a decision that brought Polanski, for the second time, into the snare of an extradition warrant.
Extradition proceedings against Polanski began in 2009 when he left his haven in Paris to accept an award in Switzerland. Swiss authorities connected him to an extradition warrant relating to the then-nearly 30-year-old case.
Polanski, the husband of Manson Family murder victim Sharon Tate, was kept under house arrest in a Swiss chalet until a judge denied the extradition.
Like Cooley, current Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey was pursuing a case that had grown far more egregious in the eyes of American justice than it was in 1977, when a prosecutor accepted a reduced plea to spare the victim trauma, and both a probation officer and the psychiatrist who evaluated Polanski minimized his culpability. Neither Lacey nor her spokesperson could be reached for comment Friday.
The probation report deemed the crime a “spontaneous” act of “poor judgment,” while the psychiatrist judged it “playful mutual eroticism.”
“Under current law, he would have been in prison for decades,” Cooley said.
Hollywood tried to reform Polanski’s image, the former D.A. said, but that failed when his office released the grand jury transcripts from the original case in response to a request from Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez in 2009.
The 13-year-old victim’s testimony cast the then-43-year-old Polanski as a sexual predator who used deceit, drugs and adult psychology to lure his victim into sex.
Polanski took her to Jack Nicholson’s Mulholland Drive house on the pretext of photographing her for a French magazine. Instead, he gave her champagne and half a Quaalude pill, pressured her to disrobe in a hot tub and lured her into a bedroom where he had oral and anal sex with her.
“Polanski plied a 13-year-old with alcohol and drugs and faced statutory rape, not rape like he would if one college student had done the crime to another,” said USC law professor Jody Armour.
The European courts, he said, viewed the extradition as an effort to go back at a case where prosecutors simply got a deal that later generations find unacceptable.
At the same time as the extradition proceedings, Polanski’s attorneys, who included prominent civil rights lawyer Alan M. Dershowitz, made two attempts to have his case dismissed based on a contention of judicial misconduct.
The now-deceased judge, Lawrence J. Rittenband, told attorneys in the case that he would set Polanski free on time served after the psychiatric evaluation but later reneged on what they regarded as a promise and was planning to make him serve out a 90-day sentence, or more.
Two judges overseeing the petitions indicated they were leaning toward dismissal but would require Polanski to appear in person before ruling. Polanski refused, fearing he might get more time.
Though the Polish appeals court decision may end the legal case, the tug-of-war of cultural mores remains far from settled.
“Polanski will have one type of legacy in Europe and one type of legacy in the U.S.,” said Levenson, the Loyola professor. “In Europe, he will be portrayed as an unfair victim of the United States criminal justice system, and in the United States he will be portrayed as someone who has committed a terrible crime and never really faced the music.”
His victim, Samantha Geimer, has spoken out publicly in recent years, urging L.A. prosecutors to halt their efforts to bring Polanski back to the United States.
Others think it might be time to end the case.
“In the big picture, we have more important things in the world than extraditing Roman Polanski to the United States,” said attorney Dmitry Gorin, a former Los Angeles County prosecutor.
“Everybody thinks and believes that having sex with a 13-year-old is a serious crime, but that’s not what he pleaded guilty to,” Gorin said. “He got a lesser offense, and that specific lesser offense is viewed as not extraditable.”
Cooley defended the effort, even though he thought a judge might have sentenced Polanski to no more than his original remaining term of 48 days.
“Upholding the dignity of the court is a very important principle,” Cooley said. “It was certainly worth pursuing Mr. Polanski for all these years.”