Polanski goes free, but options are limited

L.A. D.A. disappointed by Swiss court's decision

Roman Polanski is once again free but, as in the past three decades, he’ll have limited options on where he can travel, live and work.

After the Swiss government Monday announced that it had denied a U.S. extradition request for the director, Los Angeles prosecutors essentially put him on notice should he venture into a more “cooperative jurisdiction.”

Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley, saying he was “deeply disappointed” by the Swiss authorities’ decision, added that “we will discuss with the Dept. of Justice the extradition of Roman Polanski if he’s arrested in a cooperative jurisdiction.”

“We only formally request when we are notified by a government that the fugitive is in their country,” Cooley said. “The request was filed immediately by this office after the Swiss notified us of Polanski’s expected arrival at the Zurich Film Festival in September.”

The case is a blow to prosecutors, who believed they were on the cusp of bringing Polanski back to L.A. to face the resolution of his 32-year case. Polanski pleaded guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old girl, but left the country in 1978 before he could be formally sentenced.

Since then, he has spent much of his time in France, where he was born, and which has a provision in its extradition treaty with the U.S. that places “no obligation” on France to extradite a national. Polanski also holds Polish citizenship.

Just where Polanski can go now depends on the strength of the extradition treaty.

Swiss Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf said, “He can go to France, or to Poland, anywhere he will not be arrested.”

Since December, Polanski had been under house arrest at his Swiss chalet. After the extradition decision, a foot-bracelet he had been wearing to track his movements was switched off.

Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for the District Attorney’s Office, said she could not provide a figure on how much has been spent prosecuting the case since last fall because the office does not keep such records.

Polanski had accused Cooley of using his case as a way to get attention as he seeks higher office as California’s attorney general.

As yet, the case has not become much of a factor between Cooley and his Democratic opponent, Kamala Harris. It also remains to be seen whether the D.A.’s office will devote substantial resources to monitoring Polanski’s movements. At the time of his arrest in September, authorities told the Associated Press that they had learned of his plans to travel to Switzerland for the film festival days in advance and therefore were able to prepare for an arrest. They said it was unlike other times when they did not know when he would arrive in the country, or were tipped off but Polanski ended up scrapping the trip.

Even if he were to be arrested again, the D.A. could still face the same difficulty in obtaining extradition.

“Mr. Polanski is 76 years old and we now know he can at least go to Switzerland and France,” said Jean Rosenbluth, clinical associate professor of law at USC and a former federal prosecutor. “There is not a lot the D.A. can do if he stays in those countries.”

Laurie Levenson, professor of law at Loyola Law School, said that Polanski would be advised to “stick close to home.” “I’m sure his lawyers are studying the world map for countries that won’t extradite him. He certainly won’t be coming to Hollywood.”

Polanski’s arrest in September reignited attention — and plenty of political debate — in his 1977 case. In the aftermath of his arrest, more than 100 filmmakers and colleagues, including Harvey Weinstein, Woody Allen, Pedro Almodovar, Michael Mann and Martin Scorsese, signed a petition calling for his release or expressing dismay at his arrest. But the Hollywood support for him was also met with expressions of disgust, including from commentators on both sides of the political spectrum in Washington.

His release does not resolve his case. Off and on through the years, his legal team has made overtures to come to some agreement that would allow him to return to the U.S. His arrest came months after his attorneys had sought a resolution in L.A. courts following the 2008 release of documentary “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired” that included allegations of prosecutorial and judicial misconduct in 1977. But legal authorities have refused to consider those charges without Polanski present. Swiss authorities noted that U.S. authorities issued a warrant for Polanski in 2005.

His U.S. attorneys, Chad Hummel and Bart Dalton, had no comment on plans for their client. His attorney in Europe, Herve Temine, expressed delight. “It’s an enormous satisfaction and a great relief after the pain suffered by Roman Polanski and his family,” he said.

Swiss authorities said they rejected the request because they could not be certain if Polanski had already served the time to which he was to have been sentenced — which has been one of the chief arguments among Polanski’s lawyers.

The Swiss officials said they asked U.S. authorities to supply January testimony from Roger Gunson, who was in charge of the case in the 1970s. They noted that the “records should prove that, in a meeting held on Sept. 19, 1977, the judge in charge at the time had expressly assured representatives of the parties that the 42 days of detention spent by Roman Polanski in the psychiatric unit of a Californian prison represented the whole term of imprisonment he was condemned to.” But on May 13, the Dept. of Justice rejected the request to supply the records of the Gunson interview on the grounds that they had to be “kept secret,” Swiss officials said. The interview was sealed by the court.

“In these circumstances, it is not possible to exclude with the necessary certainty that Roman Polanski has already served the sentence he was condemned to at the time and that the extradition request is undermined by a serious fault,” the Justice Ministry said in a statement.

Widmer-Schlumpf told reporters the case “was not about qualifying a crime. That is not our duty. This is not about deciding on guilt or innocence.”

They also cited the “confidence basis” on which Polanski had been able to travel back and forth from Switzerland before his arrest, noting that otherwise he would not have gone to the film festival.

Cooley, however, called the decision a “disservice to justice and other victims as a whole.”

Referring to the Gunson interview, he said, “To justify their finding to deny extradition on an issue that is unique to California law regarding conditional examination of a potentially unavailable witness is a rejection of the competency of the California courts. The Swiss could not have found a smaller hook on which to hang their hat.”

Federal officials hinted that other countries would be under some pressure should Polanski travel outside his home. As Rosenbluth noted, extradition treaties exist because “countries routinely need each other’s help.”

Philip Crowley, a spokesman for the State Department, said that “we continue to pursue justice in this case and I’ll let other countries explain actions they’ve taken or actions they’ve failed to take.”

“A 13-year-old girl was drugged and raped by an adult,” he said. “This is not a matter of technicality.”

(Dave McNary contributed to this report.)