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L.A. County district attorney defends pursuit of Polanski case

Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley says director Roman Polanski must be brought to justice and that his decades-old guilty plea to sexually abusing a 13-year-old girl should not be taken lightly.

October 02, 2009|Jack Leonard

Los Angeles County's top prosecutor responded Thursday to criticism from Roman Polanski's supporters over his office's pursuit of the case, saying fugitives must be brought to justice and that the famed director committed a crime.

"It's about completing justice," Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said. "Justice is not complete when someone leaves the jurisdiction of the court."

Cooley took issue with attempts to minimize Polanski's admission that he had sex with a 13-year-old girl, particularly movie mogul Harvey Weinstein's recent description of the offense as a "so-called crime."

"Mr. Polanski pled guilty to a crime, so apparently Mr. Polanski believes there's a crime," Cooley said. "There are still five or six other much more serious charges pending that have yet to be resolved."

Cooley declined to talk about how his office intends to handle the 3-decade-old case should Polanski be extradited to the United States from Switzerland, where he was arrested over the weekend. Under California law, the state will pick up the county's costs associated with extradition.

Polanski, now 76, fled Los Angeles on the eve of his 1978 sentencing after he admitted to having sex with the teenage girl. As part of a 1977 plea deal, the director pleaded guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor while prosecutors promised to drop rape, sodomy and other charges after sentencing. A judge was to determine Polanski's sentence.

Also on Thursday, the filmmaker of a 2008 documentary that triggered allegations of judicial and prosecutorial misconduct in the case defended her work and questioned comments made by a now-retired prosecutor who says he lied in the film.

Marina Zenovich said in a statement that she was "perplexed by the timing" of David Wells' comments this week, adding that the former prosecutor had never raised concerns with her in the four years since his interview for the HBO documentary "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired."

"I am astonished that he has now changed his story," she said.

Wells' comments in the film were the basis of a portion -- but not all -- of the misconduct allegations that Polanski's lawyers leveled recently at Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Laurence J. Rittenband over his handling of the original case. In February, another Los Angeles County judge refused to consider the defense request to dismiss the case while Polanski remained a fugitive, but said he found evidence of "substantial . . . misconduct."

In the documentary, Wells, who at the time of the alleged misconduct was not assigned the case, recalled in vivid detail how he advised Rittenband to send Polanski to prison for 90 days for diagnostic testing. He said he told Rittenband that the move would put the director behind bars without giving Polanski the opportunity to file an appeal.

"That was not true," Wells said earlier this week. "I like to speak of it as an inept statement, but the reality is that it was a lie."

Wells, 71, said he was assured that the documentary would never be shown in the United States -- a statement that Zenovich disputed.

"Embellishing a story sounded like a good idea," Wells said, adding that he deeply regretted his comments. He insisted that he never discussed the case with Rittenband, who died in 1993.

"I'm known to the world as a liar," Wells said. "It's mortifying."

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jack.leonard@latimes.com

Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this report.

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