Roman Polanski lost a battle Tuesday in his effort to get a 1977 child sex case against him thrown out, but in delivering the bad news, a judge suggested the acclaimed director may be a plane ticket away from winning the larger war.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Peter Espinoza told a packed courtroom that he found the core argument in Polanski's request for a dismissal of charges -- allegations of unethical and, in some instances, illegal conduct by a prosecutor and a judge three decades ago -- to be credible.
"There was substantial, it seems to me, misconduct that occurred during the pendency of this case," Espinoza said.
But, the judge said, Polanski's fugitive status left him no choice but to deny the request. Espinoza suspended his ruling for 30 days to allow Polanski to discuss surrendering with his lawyers. He later extended that deadline until May at the request of Polanski's attorneys, who said the director is filming a movie in Germany for the next 2 1/2 months.
Polanski, now 75, has said he has no intention of returning to the United States. A 1978 arrest warrant, issued after he failed to appear at his sentencing on a statutory rape conviction, is still in effect, and he would be taken into custody upon arrival on U.S. soil.
In spite of Polanski's pledge not to come back, his legal team seemed to be mulling the possibility of a return.
After Espinoza voiced support for the allegations of misconduct, a lawyer for Polanski pressed the judge for details about how the case might play out if the director were present in court.
Espinoza declined to discuss how he would rule, telling the lawyer, Chad Hummel, that Polanski "just needs to submit to the jurisdiction of the court."
Polanski's lawyers and agent would not comment on whether the director is considering a return. In 1997, a prosecutor and a defense attorney worked out a plan for the director to surrender, be arrested at the airport, brought to court, sentenced and immediately released. The agreement fell apart with Polanski's side saying he objected to television coverage in court.
Polanski was arrested 31 years ago at a Beverly Hills hotel after a 13-year-old girl accused him of sexually assaulting her during a photo shoot at actor Jack Nicholson's house.
He reached a plea deal with prosecutors in which he pleaded guilty to a count of unlawful sex with a minor, and prosecutors agreed not to pursue rape, sodomy and other counts.
In an HBO documentary last year, "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired," the original prosecutor and defense attorney said the trial judge, Laurence Rittenband, now deceased, reneged on a sentencing agreement with Polanski and engaged in other unethical conduct. Another prosecutor said he gave the judge backroom advice about how to ensure that the director spent more time behind bars than the victim or the probation department wanted.
The victim, Samantha Geimer, settled a civil suit against Polanski and publicly forgave him. She has asked that the case be dismissed. Her attorney on Tuesday argued to Espinoza that she could make the motion to dismiss the charges if Polanski's fugitive status prevented the judge from doing so, but Espinoza said in a written ruling that there was no "legal justification" to support that argument.
Despite the victim's stance and the years that have passed, both sides displayed flashes of outrage at the hearing. Deputy Dist. Atty. David Walgren, who was 8 at the time of the crime, criticized Polanski as a defendant who "drugged and raped a 13-year-old child" and was now seeking the court's help "from the comforts of France."
The remarks raised the ire of 79-year-old Douglas Dalton, the director's original attorney, who noted that the prosecutor "was not there" when the case unfolded.
"Few of us were," the judge replied.
"I was," Dalton shot back.