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Swiss government's decision could hinder further efforts to extradite Polanski

Issues raised by Swiss justice officials over the handling of the case by L.A. County authorities could make other countries, even those with extradition treaties, reluctant to arrest him.

July 14, 2010|By Richard Winton and Andrew Blankstein, Los Angeles Times

The Swiss government's decision not to extradite Roman Polanski to Los Angeles means the famed director can travel freely in France, Switzerland, Poland and other countries without extradition agreements with the United States.

But some legal experts said the Swiss justice ministry's legal rationale for rejecting the extradition request could make even countries with extradition treaties think twice before arresting Polanski.

The Swiss government on Monday, in explaining its decision, cited the way Polanski's case was handled in 1977 when he had sex with a 13-year-old girl. Polanski served 42 days in a state prison — and the Swiss said that it's unclear whether that should have been his full sentence for pleading guilty to having unlawful sex with a minor. Government officials said U.S. authorities didn't provide adequate paperwork to sort out the questions.

Experts say the Swiss raise a number of issues about how Polanski, 76, was treated three decades ago by the U.S. justice system — and those issues could easily be referenced if U.S. authorities ask another country to arrest and extradite Polanski.

"Switzerland apparently decided, 'We will not extradite someone back into this legal morass," said Robert Weisberg, a Stanford law professor. "It could be that the effort to bring him back to L.A. was hopeless from the start because, however carefully the extradition papers were prepared, they still would rest on the original proceedings of 1978, which contained a host of perhaps irresolvable issues."

Loyola Law professor Stan Goldman agreed, saying U.S. authorities would need address these questions if they are serious about going forward with additional extradition efforts against the director.

"What the Swiss government was saying was wait a minute, this strikes to the heart of the issue: Is he going to be sentenced to more time?" Goldman said.

Both L.A. County prosecutors and U.S. Justice Department officials expressed outrage at the Swiss decision and vowed to continue their pursuit of Polanski.

"The Swiss could not have found a smaller hook on which to hang their hat," Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said in a statement released Monday.

Polanski's legal team has cited back-room dealings between Polanski's judge, Laurence J. Rittenband, and the attorneys in the case that resulted in the director receiving unfair treatment. Those allegations were also made in a 2008 HBO documentary that suggested Rittenband acted inappropriately.

Rittenband ordered Polanski to undergo a 90-day psychiatric evaluation at a Chino state prison. The prosecutor and Polanski's attorney understood that his time in the prison would serve as the director's full punishment. He was released after 42 days. But Rittenband — in one of the private meetings with the attorneys — said he wanted Polanski to finish the 90 days — and then leave the country.

Polanski fled the U.S. before Rittenband handed down the sentence and has not set foot in this country since.

In a statement released Tuesday, Polanski's legal team in the United States called for a third-party investigation into what happened in Rittenband's courtroom three decades ago.

Goldman said Cooley and his team are forced to deal with a set of facts — and behavior — from decades ago over which they had no control.

"It is not the fault of the present district attorney, but the environment back then facilitated back-room deals," Goldman said. "These back-room shenanigans have finally come home to roost this week."

richard.winton@latimes.com

andrew.blankstein@latimes.com

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