Roman Polanski’s latest encounter with the legal system is part of a decades-long dance to stay out of the reach of the long arm of U.S. law.
This week, a British appeals court rejected Polanski’s bid to appear at trial in his libel case against Vanity Fair via video link from Paris. Britain’s highest court will hear his appeal, which claims that he is being unfairly sanctioned because he is a fugitive from the California courts.
But the decision to sue in London was a chancy move from the beginning. After a 2002 Vanity Fair article accused the Polish-born director of seducing a woman on the way to the funeral of his actress wife Sharon Tate, who was murdered in 1969, Polanski decided to sue for libel. He rejected suing publisher Conde Nast in the United States because of tough U.S. libel laws, but mostly because he feared being arrested. Polanski fled the country 27 years ago after he pleaded guilty in a California court to having unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old. He has not returned since. France does not extradite under these circumstances.
Before Polanski sued in Great Britain, one of his attorneys called the Los Angeles D.A.’s office to feel out whether it would attempt to extradite him if he appeared in Great Britain. Said spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons, “His attorney asked for our blessing for Mr. Polanski to go to London, and we couldn’t give any guarantee.”
Whether Polanski is now out of court remains to be seen. The lower court in Britain rejected Polanski’s bid to testify via video link on the grounds that it would be unfair to assist a fugitive in evading the law. But Peter Gelles, an L.A. lawyer who is admitted to practice in Britain, said there are many issues for the court to look at. Said Gelles, “I wouldn’t assume he hasn’t got a chance. The issue is presenting evidence, which doesn’t necessarily require him to be there. Even if he does show up, the subject of extradition involves areas of discretion and public policy.”