Roman Polanski rape case is near the end? Here’s why it took 45 years – guest column

Editor’s note: William C. Rempel, longtime journalist who covered the Roman Polanski case, and Sam Wasson, author big goodbye About making Polanski Chinatown, successfully petitioned the court last year to open the long-sealed testimony. As the case continues to be monitored, they describe the expected next steps here

Real life criminal cases Chinatown Director Roman Polanski’s tale of dark mystery and twisted justice that has dragged through Los Angeles Superior Court since the 1970s will likely soon see its final scenes in a downtown courtroom — one way or another.

However, few plot lines are yet to be resolved in what started as a celebrity scandal in 1977 that turned into a legal morass that turned into an international embarrassment to the local judiciary.

Three factors are driving the case to a conclusion of sorts.

First, attorneys for the filmmaker convicted of statutory rape nearly half a century ago are drafting new moves to have his sentence commuted — this time in absentia.

Second, the public release of sealed testimony last summer, specifically pointing to judicial and prosecutorial misconduct, has already put the case’s most sensitive secrets on record. The purpose of hiding the dirty linen of the court no longer matters.

Finally, time may be running out for official interest in Polanski and his sentencing status. Nowhere else seems to be a priority for courts or law enforcement agencies. The wanted man is out of extradition in France and lives in a house in the Alps, where he continues to make films. He will be 90 in August.

The big cliffhanger that remains in the drama is whether revelations of past court misconduct will force Los Angeles authorities to finally quash the 45-year-old’s fugitive warrant against the Oscar winner. And, if so, did Polanski ask then-President Judge Lawrence J. Is it possible to get some version of the controversial sentence promised and then rejected by Rittenband?

Even the child victim, today a 50-year-old grandmother and living in Hawaii, supports an end to the procedural nightmare that has made the case one of the longest legal complications in California state court history.

It all started with a private photo shoot in Los Angeles in 1977 where the 45-year-old Polanski lured a 13-year-old model into a hot tub, drugged her with drugs and alcohol, and engaged in sexual behavior for which she was too young to give legal consent. He later apologized and agreed to plead guilty to statutory rape, the most serious of the charges brought against him.

Although there was no guarantee of leniency at the time, Rittenband told lawyers for victims and both sides of the case that he was leaning that way.

After Polanski’s conviction, Rittenband sent him to Chino State Prison for the customary 90-day psychiatric evaluation that is usually required after a conviction. And in the privacy of his closed-door office, the judge told lawyers — subject to a favorable psychiatric evaluation — to add that 90-day detention to Polanski’s total prison time.

By then, two separate probation officers had already interviewed Polanski and recommended “no incarceration.” One of the reports, justifying a sentence of probation, noted that “the defendant… has demonstrated genuine remorse” and accepted responsibility.

The victim’s advocate supported the idea, saying the young teen and her family wanted to avoid a trial and that they supported leniency for Polanski to achieve that.

The only objection was from Deputy District Attorney Roger Gunson. He alleges that counting the 90 days of diagnostic testing as jail time is improper as a matter of law. But Rittenband, who the prosecutor also called “a locomotive” that never changes direction once it makes up its mind, brushed off the prosecutor’s objections.

The deal was set – until negative press and public backlash ensued.

Rittenband’s sensitivity to criticism was heightened when the diagnostic test lasted only 42 days. That’s when “Locomotive” changed his mind. He wanted Polanski to serve another 48 days – the same as his original 90-day sentence.

And then it got worse.

Rittenband, a 72-year-old veteran LA jurist, convened a presentation session in his private chambers with all the lawyers. The meeting was off the record. No tape recorder or official stenographer was taking notes when the judge revealed plans to impose a potentially harsher sentence… but only for public display.

He promised to get Polanski out early, but away from cameras and reporters, the filmmaker once served a total of 90 days in jail. The judge only wanted Polanski to believe him and then set one more non-negotiable condition:

The side deal had to be kept secret from the media. In other words: no one could out him to the press.

And then it got worse.

Rittenband set specific speech roles for both lawyers to perform at a public sentencing hearing scheduled for February 1978. Deputy DA Gunson will argue for a year in state prison; Rittenband would mull it over and then order Polanski’s release with “a word prescribed by law” — wink, wink — but without fanfare after 48 days. The math: That 48 days equals 90 days of custody with 42 in Chino.

But then it got worse.

Defense lawyer Dalton not only denied acting in any orchestrated charade, he threatened to demand a public hearing on the judge’s perjury and cover-up scheme. Rittenband countered by threatening to retaliate — against Polanski — by warning the lawyer that he could keep his client in custody longer than the judge’s newly promised 48 days.

At the time in February 1978, however, Polanski faced a possible open prison term of two to 20 years — and theoretically up to 50 years — under the existing state legal code, “a term fixed by law.” That revised agreement required considerable faith in the word of a judge who, at the same time, broke his previous promise.

Caught in this mish-mash of politics and justice, Polanski opted instead for flight out of the country.

It was one of those rare moments in history when the prosecutor and his opposing counsel were driven to the same extreme: separately, each drafted language for legal motions to disqualify Rittenband and remove him from the case. Gunson’s superiors in the Los Angeles district attorney’s office refused to approve it.

But Gunson and Dalton both reached the same conclusion: Polanski was not an innocent man, but he was the victim of a dishonest judge. In a note of understated eloquence, the prosecutor later stated the difficult situation: “My dilemma.”

The intervening years brought more bad news for Polanski and the reputation of Los Angeles Justice.

Twice in the past 12 years the filmmaker has been arrested and detained for extradition on that old fugitive warrant, both times successfully defending himself as a “fugitive from justice.”

He was jailed for two months in Switzerland in 2010 – a period longer than the 48 days remaining under Rittenband’s suspended sentence. He was held under house arrest for an additional six months before Switzerland refused extradition.

Five years later in Poland, where Polanski attended the opening of a Jewish museum honoring Holocaust victims — his mother among them — he was briefly detained until Polish authorities also refused extradition. A court in Krakow accused the Los Angeles court of actions that “clearly contradicted the fundamental principle of a fair trial.”

Finally, the California Court of Appeals called for a review of sealed records in the Polanski case, saying: “We are deeply concerned that these allegations of misconduct have not been addressed by the courts… Polanski’s allegations urgently require a full investigation and then, if warranted, remedial action for the misconduct alleged here.”

And there the case remains today, although time has imposed other significant changes: Rittenband was already retired when he died in 1993 at age 88. Dalton died last year at the age of 92. Meanwhile, a succession of judges and district attorneys have refused to close the case without Polanski’s personal appearance in a California court. Polanski still refuses.

Longtime Los Angeles attorney Harland Brown now represents the filmmaker. Polanski advocated the use of unavailable technology while escaping Rittenband’s jurisdiction.

“You know, they invented something called Zoom. So, my client need not be present in person. And we all know now that Roman owes no more time under California law.”

After all these years, can such a complicated case really end on a Zoom call?

Of course, that’s the more important question: Will the justice system, which has been under pressure for decades to keep up damaging evidence, finally admit the dishonesty that kept it secret for so long?

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