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Defense strategies could keep Polanski out of prison

Prosecutors have yet to say what punishments they'll pursue if the director is extradited, but experts say the defense's strongest option is asking that the case be dismissed for judicial misconduct.

October 01, 2009|Harriet Ryan and Jack Leonard

Roman Polanski rushed up to the British Airways counter at LAX in late January 1978 with an American Express card and an urgent desire to get out of town. He bought the last seat on an overnight flight to London and 15 minutes later, he wrote in his autobiography, watched Los Angeles gradually disappear out a jet window.

The criminal case that Polanski was fleeing never went away, as his recent arrest in Zurich attests. But how a Los Angeles court would restart the case if Switzerland extradites the film director, 76, is a question complicated by the passage of decades and recent allegations of judicial misconduct.

The district attorney's office contends the yellowing case file only needs dusting off and proceedings should pick up exactly where they left off in 1978 -- with a judge sentencing Polanski for a statutory rape charge. "He will appear before the court and the court will decide what his sentence is," said Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for the district attorney's office.

Legal experts, however, said Polanski has options beyond begging for leniency. There are a number of legal maneuvers, such as withdrawing his guilty plea, that could result in the case being dropped entirely or in a sentence of no prison time.

"This is an interesting case of strategy from the defense side," said veteran defense attorney Harland W. Braun. "It's going to get very complicated."

Before he became a fugitive, a grand jury indicted Polanski, then 43, on six felonies, including rape and sodomy, for an assault on a 13-year-old girl. Prosecutors agreed to a plea deal because the victim's family did not want to subject her to the trauma of testifying at trial.

Under the terms of the deal, Polanski pleaded guilty to unlawful intercourse with a minor in exchange for the other charges being dismissed. He agreed that Judge Laurence Rittenband would determine the sentence. Rittenband sent the filmmaker to the prison in Chino for a 90-day "diagnostic evaluation" that he said would "enable the Court to reach a fair and just decision."

Prison officials released Polanski after 42 days and advised the judge that testing indicated his sentence should not include additional prison time. Rittenband labeled the prison report "a whitewash" and said he planned to send Polanski back to prison for an additional 48 days if he voluntarily agreed to deportation. Informed of this by his attorney, Polanski left the country, seeking refuge in France.

If he is returned to Los Angeles, Polanski's first move would probably be requesting that all charges be tossed because of alleged judicial and prosecutorial misconduct, said Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson.

"Bring that motion first and try to get the entire case dismissed," said Levenson, a former federal prosecutor.

The misconduct allegations would rest on interviews in a 2008 HBO documentary -- "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired" -- in which the original prosecutor, retired Deputy Dist. Atty. Roger Gunson, and defense attorney Douglas Dalton detailed improper and unethical conduct by the judge, who died in 1993.

The men said in the film and reiterated in court declarations this year that Rittenband improperly sent Polanski to Chino for the purpose of punishment rather than testing. The judge, they said, had agreed to set Polanski free after that stay, but reneged and decided to imprison the director again at his official sentencing in what amounted to a second round of punishment.

"I told Judge Rittenband that the diagnostic study was not designed to be used as a sentence, but [he] said . . . he was going to do it anyway," Gunson wrote in an August declaration in appellate court.

In the documentary, retired L.A. County prosecutor David Wells recalled giving Rittenband the idea of using the diagnostic testing as punishment during backroom conversations about the case. Wells recanted that statement Wednesday.

Polanski's attorneys presented evidence of misconduct by Rittenband and Wells to the Superior Court's supervising criminal judge, Peter Espinoza, last year, but he refused to consider their arguments because the defendant was still a fugitive. Espinoza, who could preside over Polanski's case in the future, noted, however, that he found evidence of "substantial . . . misconduct."

If Polanski's lawyers can establish that Rittenband went back on his word, they could argue that the director has already served his prison time and should now be placed on probation. That would mean his immediate release.

There is precedent for such a move in the case history. In 1997, when Polanski's lawyer quietly approached Judge Larry Paul Fidler about resolving the case, the judge agreed to a plan in which the director would return to the United States and immediately receive a sentence of probation. According to a court declaration by Dalton, the judge faulted Rittenband's actions in a meeting in chambers, saying the judge should have honored his pledge to release Polanski after his imprisonment in Chino.

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