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Roman Polanski Transcript Shows D.A.’s Concerns About Judge’s 1977 Conduct

roman polanski
Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images

A retired prosecutor recalled in 2010 that he was so concerned about the handling of the rape case against Roman Polanski in 1977 that he drafted a document seeking the removal of the judge.

Roger Gunson testified in a closed hearing that Judge Laurence Rittenband appeared to be having “ex parte” conversations about the case. Gunson also said that he understood Polanski’s decision to flee the country in 1978, though he did not think it was justified.

“I was surprised, but after reflecting upon what had happened, I wasn’t surprised that he left,” Gunson testified, saying he believed the judge had reneged on a promise to limit Polanski’s sentence to a brief stay in prison for a psychiatric examination. “There becomes a question as to whether he, Mr. Polanski, can rely upon the representation of Judge Rittenband.”

Gunson’s testimony was unsealed late Sunday night, after an appeals court ordered its release last week. The transcript documents a conditional examination that took place over three days in 2010, as Polanski’s lawyers were seeking to have the case dismissed for judicial and prosecutorial misconduct.

The contents of Gunson’s testimony were already largely known, as Gunson had cooperated with the 2008 documentary “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired,” which addressed the allegations in detail. But the release of the transcript appears likely to spur renewed efforts to resolve the case, which has lingered for 45 years without a conclusion.

Polanski pleaded guilty in 1977 to a count of unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old girl. Rittenband ordered him to Chino State Prison for a 90-day diagnostic examination before sentencing him. Polanski was released after 42 days, leading to a public outcry. Rittenband then reversed himself, according to Gunson’s testimony, saying he would send Polanski back to state prison.

Gunson testified that Rittenband said he would “recall” Polanski after he had completed the full 90 days, but it was not clear if Polanski could rely on that promise.

“If he were sent to state prison and not recalled by the judge, then he could be there for 20 or 50 years,” Gunson testified.

Gunson said that Rittenband would often have ex parte conversations about cases, and that he had once warned the judge that it was inappropriate. He said his office never sought to disqualify the judge from the case. In 2010, he said he had looked for the affidavit he had drafted in 1977 that laid out his concerns about Rittenband’s conduct, but could not locate it.

Polanski has been a fugitive since 1978, living mostly in France. Since that time, seven people have served as Los Angeles County district attorney, and all have taken the position that Polanski must first return to U.S. and appear in open court before the case can be resolved.

But George Gascón, who was elected in 2020, appears to be reconsidering that position. His office has said it will reexamine the case with “fresh eyes” now that the Gunson transcript has been released, and has also made mention of wanting to obtain “closure” for Samantha Geimer, the victim in the case who has wanted for years to have it dismissed.

Steve Cooley, who served as D.A. from 2000 to 2012, criticized Gascón in an interview, saying it appears that he has already decided to resolve the case in Polanski’s favor.

“The first hurdle was to have the transcripts released,” Cooley said. “He will interpret it the way he wants to interpret it so he can reach the conclusions he wants to reach.”

Cooley said that Gascón is merely seeking to distract attention from a pending recall campaign. And he argued that Polanski should be required to surrender to the court before any resolution occurs.

“Why should he get to be sentenced in absentia?” Cooley asked. “Because he’s an Academy Award winner? Because he’s a great director? There’s no exception in the penal code for that. Show up like everybody else.”

Polanski’s lawyers have long sought to unseal Gunson’s transcript, which they argued would prove that the director was mistreated by the court system. Last November, two journalists — Sam Wasson and William Rempel — filed a motion to unseal it. An appeals court ordered the transcript released on Wednesday, after the D.A.’s office dropped its objections.

Much of the transcript’s contents had already been disclosed in a 2010 defense motion, in which Polanski’s attorneys sought the appointment of a special counsel to investigate the misconduct allegations.