As France celebrates Bastille Day today, one of its best-known citizens, Roman Polanski of Paris, has a special reason to honor the storming of a prison.
Thirty three years after he raped a 13-year-old girl in Los Angeles, Polanski has been freed from his Swiss chalet. There, at his part-time home, he had been held captive to an ankle bracelet while awaiting word on whether he would be sent to California to answer for his crime.
This week Switzerland announced it was shielding the admitted child molester from extradition.
This wasn’t an easy conclusion for Switzerland. To reach it, authorities had to ignore certain facts of the case, as well as the terms of a treaty with the U.S.
That they did so speaks to their reverence for the filmmaker’s enormous talent and his status among European intellectuals.
That wasn’t the reason given when the Swiss justice ministry announced the decision. It said the U.S. had refused to hand over recent, sealed testimony by one of his original prosecutors because judges in California had twice ordered it remain sealed.
But without the deposition, Switzerland couldn’t be sufficiently certain whether Roman Polanski had already served his sentence, the ministry said in its press release.
Sentence? What sentence? Polanski fled the country on the eve of sentencing with the clear purpose of avoiding it. That is a matter of public record.
But the Swiss wanted to know what the judge told lawyers he planned to do at sentencing and whether he had promised to let him go, as the defense claims. The testimony would have helped with that.
Were there problems with the original prosecution? There were. Are any allegations of mishandling hefty enough to wipe out Polanski’s admitted guilt? Not a chance.
Besides, it isn’t up to the Swiss to make that call. They did, anyway, questioning why California spent years at a time not seeking Polanski’s extradition, as if that were relevant.
In effect, Switzerland decided that its view of justice in the case should prevail. That isn’t the way extradition is supposed to work.
Except for political crimes, extradition is normally a routine matter. The hosting country makes sure they have the right guy and that the case fits within the terms of the treaty. There is little discretion.
The Swiss focused on Polanski’s punishment because its agreement with the U.S. says people with no more than six months left on their prison sentences can’t be extradited.
By claiming he had already been sentenced, and to a term measured in days not months, the defense tried to make it appear that Polanski wasn’t eligible for extradition.
At the time, Judge Laurence Rittenband said Polanski should be jailed for up to 90 days for a psychological evaluation. He reportedly told lawyers that if the assessment was favorable, which it was, Polanski would be free.
But between then and formal sentencing, Rittenband had second thoughts, according to multiple reports. The evaluation had taken only 42 days, after which Polanski was let go. The question was whether Polanski would be jailed for the full 90 when he returned for sentencing.
Let’s take a break here to note the facts of the case.
His 13-year-old victim told the grand jury that Polanski, then 43, took her for a photo shoot at Jack Nicholson’s house, gave her champagne and a Quaalude, told her to take off her clothes, sodomized her and raped her twice against her admittedly weak protests.
Equated With Rape
What did Polanski think of it? “I couldn’t equate what happened that day with rape in any form,” he wrote in his autobiography eight years later.
No wonder. By then he had spent years in Switzerland bringing “fresh-faced, nubile young girls” from exclusive finishing schools to his alpine chalet, according to a 2009 New Yorker account of his case.
And then there was actress Nastassja Kinski, 15 or 16 when she and Polanski began their romance, depending on whether you go by her version or his. British actress Charlotte Lewis told reporters and prosecutors she was 16 when Polanski sexually abused her in 1981.
It is true that his California victim, Samantha Geimer, says she wants the prosecution to drop the case. But the district attorney represents the state, not a single victim, and that means prosecuting sexual predators.
A California grand jury indicted Polanski on six charges, enough to send him away for decades. But, spooked by the publicity, his young victim declared she wanted no trial. So, a deal was struck.
Up to 50 Years
The single charge he admitted, unlawful sex with a minor, carried a prison term of zero to 50 years. The defense says it was common in 1977 for defendants to spend little or no time in jail for it, shocking as that seems now.
The defense also says the judge intended to jail him for the 42 days and makes it sound like that was the final sentence. It wasn’t. But the claim gave the Swiss the fig leaf they were looking for to excuse their bogus rejection of extradition.
In fact, Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley says that Polanski voided his plea agreement when he fled. That means he can still be prosecuted on all the other charges, too.
Now Cooley or his successor would have to make that argument some other time, in some other venue, and only if Polanski ventures into a country more amenable to extradition. Forget about France, which doesn’t extradite its citizens.
I don’t know where the 76-year-old Polanski is now. I would look for him on Les Champs-Elysees, hoisting champagne and celebrating his very own Bastille Day, as if his freedom were a victory for the common man or the common woman over the powerful.
It was anything but that.
(Ann Woolner is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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