THE ANGELS –
A Los Angeles judge privately told lawyers he would break a promise and jail Roman Polanski for having sex with a teenage girl in 1977, a former prosecutor testified, setting the stage for the renowned director to flee the United States as a fugitive.
A previously sealed transcript obtained by The Associated Press late Sunday of testimony from retired Deputy District Attorney Roger Gunson supports Polanski’s claim that he fled on the eve of sentencing in 1978 because he did not believe he was receiving fair treatment.
Gunson said during closed-door testimony in 2010 that the judge broke his promise to release Polanski after state prison officials determined he should not serve time.
“The judge had promised him on two occasions … something that he reneged on,” Gunson said. “So it didn’t surprise me that when they told him he was going to be sent to state prison … that he couldn’t or didn’t want to trust the judge.”
Defense attorney Harland Braun said Friday, pending release of the transcript, that the development would renew his effort to have Polanski sentenced in absentia, ending his status as a fugitive from justice.
Braun has tried unsuccessfully before with prosecutors asserting and judges agreeing that Polanski must appear in Los Angeles Superior Court to resolve the matter.
The release of the transcript, which was ordered by a California appeals court on Wednesday after Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascon withdrew longstanding objections his predecessors made to its release, may support the claims. of Polanski that a corrupt judge would mislead him.
The legal saga has played out on both sides of the Atlantic as a recurring scene throughout four decades of a life marked by tragedy and also by triumph.
As a child, Polanski escaped from the Krakow ghetto during the Holocaust. His wife, Sharon Tate, was among seven people killed in 1969 by followers of Charles Manson.
Polanski, 88, who was nominated for an Oscar for 1974’s “Chinatown” and 1979’s “Tess,” won best director for “The Pianist” in 2003. But he couldn’t accept it because he faces arrest in the United States.
France, Switzerland and Poland have rejected offers to extradite him to the United States and he continues to be feted in Europe, winning praise and working with major players. However, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences expelled him from its membership in 2018 after the “MeToo” movement sparked a reckoning over sexual misconduct.
Polanski’s 13-year-old victim testified before a grand jury that during a photo shoot at Jack Nicholson’s home in March 1977 when the actor was not home, Polanski gave her champagne and part of a sedative and then forced her to have sex. The girl herself said that she didn’t fight him because she was afraid of him, but then her mother called the police.
When the girl refused to testify in court, Polanski pleaded guilty to illegal sex with a minor in exchange for prosecutors dropping drug, rape and sodomy charges.
Polanski has argued that there was judicial misconduct in his case. In 2010, a Los Angeles court took Gunson’s sealed testimony about his recollection of promises the judge made to the director in 1977.
Polanski’s attorneys, who were in the room during Gunson’s testimony but were unable to use it in court, have long tried to release that transcript to help their case.
Judge Laurence Rittenband, now deceased, was swayed by the publicity of the case and changed his mind several times about the punishment Polanski should face, Braun said.
After a report from parole officials that Polanski shouldn’t be spending time behind bars, Rittenband sent the warden to state prison for a 90-day diagnostic evaluation to help determine what punishment he should face.
The judge said that as long as Polanski received a favorable prison report, he would serve no additional sentence, Gunson said.
After six weeks of prison evaluation, Polanski was released with a recommendation that he only serve parole, Braun said.
But Rittenband thought the parole and prison reports were perfunctory and “whitewashed,” said Gunson, who agreed that they downplayed or distorted Polanski’s crimes.
The judge privately told Gunson and Polanski’s attorney that he had to be tougher because of media criticism.
He said he would send Polanski to prison for a longer period, but then release him within 120 days, which was possible under sentencing rules at the time.
“Roman says, ‘How can I trust the judge who has lied twice?’ So he goes to Europe,” Braun said.
Gunson acknowledged during his testimony that the judge had discretion to sentence Polanski up to 50 years because there was no agreed sentence. But Gunson objected to the “sham” proceedings the judge was orchestrating and felt that he had reneged on promises he made to Polanski.
The victim, Samantha Geimer, has long advocated that the case be dismissed or that Polanski be convicted in absentia. She went so far as to travel from her home in Hawaii to Los Angeles five years ago to urge a judge to end “a 40-year sentence that has been imposed on both the victim of a crime and the perpetrator.”
“I implore you to consider taking steps to finally bring this matter to a close as an act of mercy to me and my family,” Geimer said.
The Associated Press doesn’t usually name victims of sexual abuse, but Geimer went public years ago, writing a memoir called “The Girl: A Life in the Shadow of Roman Polanski.” The cover features a photo taken by Polanski.
Polanski agreed to pay Geimer more than US$600,000 to settle a lawsuit in 1993.
Geimer, who has pushed for an investigation into the judicial misconduct, asked for the transcript to be released in a letter last month and urged the district attorney’s office to review the case again.
Prosecutors have consistently opposed the release of the material, but relented earlier this week to honor Geimer’s wishes and be transparent with the public.
“This case has been described by the courts as ‘one of the longest-running sagas in California criminal justice history,'” Gascon said in a statement. “For years, this office has fought against the release of information that the victim and the public have a right to know.”
However, the prosecutor did not indicate that Polanski could avoid a court appearance. The news release said Polanski remains at large and must surrender to court for sentencing.