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Polanski seeks dismissal of '70s child-sex case

December 03, 2008|Harriet Ryan and Victoria Kim | Ryan and Kim are Times staff writers.

Thirty years after he became a fugitive to avoid a prison sentence for having sex with a teenager, Academy Award-winning director Roman Polanski asked a judge Tuesday to dismiss the case.

In the motion filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, lawyers for Polanski alleged "repeated, unlawful and unethical misconduct" by a prosecutor and the trial judge and requested that the charge which prompted him to flee the country be dropped "in the interests of justice."

Polanski, whose films include "Rosemary's Baby" and "Chinatown," acknowledged having sex with a 13-year-old girl in actor Jack Nicholson's Mulholland Drive home in 1977 and pleaded guilty to a charge of unlawful intercourse with a minor. But the next year, on the eve of his sentencing, which he believed would bring prison time, he fled to London.

The request to dismiss the charge, which took court officials and prosecutors by surprise, is based on revelations in a documentary broadcast in June on HBO. The film, "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired," portrayed the legal proceeding as hopelessly tainted by backroom dealings between a vindictive judge and a deputy district attorney meddling in his colleagues' case.

Polanski's motion draws heavily on the film, with attorneys including a DVD of the documentary, a copy of the script and excerpts of critical reviews in the 239-page filing.

The film "contains indisputable evidence of an ongoing scheme of continuous and pervasive judicial and prosecutorial misconduct in this case," his lawyers wrote. A hearing is set for Jan. 21 before Judge Peter Espinoza.

The court case 30 years ago attracted massive media attention. Polanski, a French citizen, was a household name both for his movies and for the 1969 murder of his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, by members of the Manson family.

The Polanski case was a blend of Hollywood's glamorous and tawdry sides: Polanski allegedly plied the victim, an aspiring model, with champagne and Quaaludes and told her that he was photographing her for French Vogue.

The crime scene was a bedroom in the movie star's house. Actress Anjelica Huston, who was also in the home, was a potential witness.

In the motion, Polanski's lawyers contend that during the high-profile proceeding, Judge Lawrence Rittenband, now deceased, had improper discussions about the case with David Wells, a deputy district attorney who had been removed from the prosecution.

Wells, now retired, told the documentary makers that he talked to the judge about what sentence Polanski should receive. Under the terms of the plea deal, the judge was to determine sentencing based on the recommendation of the Probation Department and the arguments of lawyers.

Both the Probation Department and the victim recommended that Polanski receive no prison time.

According to court papers, Rittenband wanted to sentence Polanski to prison time, and Wells suggested a way to ensure he spent time behind bars even without the Probation Department's say-so: A 42-day pre-sentencing "diagnostic testing" in a maximum-security prison.

Polanski served that time, but between the time of his release and the date of his sentencing, the judge indicated to lawyers that he planned to sentence him to 48 additional days in prison, according to the papers.

Polanski left the country before the sentencing and has never returned, even when he won his Academy Award for best director for "The Pianist."

The motion also cites a conversation in which Wells showed the judge a picture of Polanski celebrating Oktoberfest in Germany surrounded by women and suggested that the director was making a fool of the court.

Wells said his discussions with the judge were in no way inappropriate and dismissed the allegations as irrelevant.

"He asked us a legal question. I gave him a legal answer," he said in an interview with The Times. "It had nothing in particular to do with the Polanski case, it was a general conversation about what could be done about sentencing anybody."

Wells, who was the prosecutor on the case during the investigation and for obtaining warrants, also said the photograph he showed the judge was in a German newspaper, and the judge would have seen it whether or not he brought it into court.

"It's a guy that raped a 13-year-old girl and wants to get no prison time. If that's the case, [Polanski] should be in state prison for life. That's how I feel about it, but remember I was not the lawyer on the case," said Wells, who said he was taken off the case because he became too involved in the investigation and his office feared he might be called as a witness. "If I were the D.A. on the case, he would've been tried, and there would've been" none of these complications.

The motion also cites a 1997 negotiation involving prosecutors, Polanski's lawyers and another judge, Larry Paul Fidler. That deal for the director to surrender and immediately be released on bail fell apart.

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