09.27.09

Polanski's Next Escape

Roman Polanski’s arrest in Switzerland has blindsided the Los Angeles court. Gerald Posner reports on the director’s 32-year legal odyssey—and whether the district attorney will be forced to drop the case.

The Justice Department's decision to have celebrated film director Roman Polanski arrested in Switzerland on a fugitive warrant on Sunday blindsided the L.A. Superior Court. Dead cops, a victim who will almost certainly not cooperate, and chain of custody problems with the physical evidence has the court in a bind. Some are wondering whether the district attorney might have to dismiss the case if Polanski is extradited to the United States.

Back in March 1977, when Polanski was arrested at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and charged with six felony counts—two charges of rape, sodomy, oral copulation, child molestation, and furnishing drugs (Quaaludes, the 1970s’ version of a date rape drug), to a 13-year-old girl, Samantha Geimer—the prosecutor’s case seemed ironclad.

Given the passage of time, and his many supporters, including even the victim herself, it’s hard to imagine that Polanski will end up in prison.

But even those familiar with the details seem to have long since forgotten them.

Nearly two years after Polanski’s wife Sharon Tate was killed by Charles Manson’s cult followers, the director met Samantha’s mother and arranged for the girl to visit him alone, ostensibly to pose for French Vogue. At their first meeting, Polanski took pictures of Samantha, including some of her topless. At the second get-together, two weeks later, at Jack Nicholson’s empty Bel Air home, he gave her champagne and a Quaalude, and then had sex with her. By the time she returned home from that encounter, Samantha’s mother had discovered the topless Polaroids. After her mother quizzed her, the child broke down in tears, confessed the details of the attack, and her mother called the police.

The acclaimed Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown director was set free on $2,000 bond and the judge gave him a 90-day stay from prosecution so he could finish his then current film project, Hurricane. (The judge reversed his decision after Polanski took a trip to Munich to arrange film financing, even though his bail conditions were supposed to keep him in California).

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Polanski faced up to 50 years in prison. But he pleaded guilty, on August 8, 1977, to a single count of unlawful sexual contact with a minor: “I had sexual intercourse with a female person not my wife, under the age of 18,” he told the court. Many people concluded somehow that the prosecutor’s case was weak and that Polanski pleaded guilty only to get rid of the matter. In fact, the transcript from his guilty plea shows that only reason the prosecutors agreed to the arrangement was that Samantha and her parents were desperate to avoid the publicity of a full-blown trial. The press had kept Samantha’s identity a secret (years later, she herself disclosed it).

“Of course, if there were to be a trial in this case, the anonymity of my clients would be at an end,” said their attorney, Lawrence Silver. “[M]y view, based upon advice from experts, and the view of the girl’s parents, is that such a trial may cause serious damage to her.”

Because of the massive publicity, Silver argued that the harm to Samantha might be greater than the crimes committed against her, and said “a stigma would attach to her for a lifetime.” At that hearing, Silver said his clients did not want to see Polanski go to jail, but rather admit his “wrongdoing” and enter a rehabilitation/treatment program.

In the age of Megan’s Law and To Catch a Predator, it seems anachronistic that the prosecutors agreed in principle with the defense to free Polanski on probation. The probation report, which concluded that Samantha had “consented,” also recommended no jail time. That report, now public, is itself sensational. In it, Polanski admitted to being a social drinker, a regular marijuana user, that he had once experimented with cocaine, and that “he has had 150 milligram Quaaludes legally prescribed for him by his physician because of excessive fatigue from jet travel.”

The victim told the probation officer, and repeated before the grand jury, that after drinking Champagne and taking a pill Polanski had given her, she was in the Jacuzzi when she felt she was having an asthma attack. Although she wanted to call her mother to pick her up, “He told me to go in the other room and lie down.” There, he joined her, and although she says she was “kind of dizzy, you know, like things were kind of blurry sometimes,” he asked her if she was taking birth control pills and when was her last period. Then the sex began.

At one point, according to the probation report, while Polanski was having anal intercourse with Samantha, Anjelica Huston, then Nicholson’s girlfriend, showed up. The probation officer wrote that Huston, “entering the residence, knocking on the bedroom door, stating, ‘Roman, are you in there.’ The defendant went to the door, talked briefly with Miss Houston, then returned to the attempted act of intercourse.”

On the night he was arrested at the Beverly Wilshire, Polanski, according to the probation report, “was apparently attempting to dispose of a 500 milligram Quaalude tablet which was then recovered by the arresting officer.”

The groundskeeper, Helena Kallianiotes, who was present when Polanski opened the Champagne bottle, told the probation officer she thought the girl looked 16 and that the youngster and the director were “lovers.” Huston, who was charged with possessing a vial of cocaine when the police came to search Nicholson’s house, told the police she had seen the girl when she came out of the bedroom.

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“She didn’t appear to be distressed. She was breathing high in her throat when she came out. He seemed sullen, which I thought was a little rude.” Asked how old she thought the girl was, Huston told the probation officer that “she appeared to be one of those kind of little chicks…she seemed quite tall to me. I would have to say anywhere, you know, about 18, around that age, late teens she looked to me.” By the time she was questioned, Huston knew the case hinged on the girl’s age.

At his 1977 hearing, the prosecutor asked Polanski if he understood that if he pleaded guilty, he could be sentenced from probation to 15 to 20 years in state prison. Polanski said yes. And since the victim was under 14, California law required that mentally disordered sex offender proceedings be commenced to determine whether Polanski should be sent to a “state hospital for an indeterminate amount of time.” Polanski acknowledged he understood this, and that only the judge, Laurence Rittenband, could determine his ultimate sentence. Finally, the prosecutors asked Polanski if he understood that since he was not a U.S. citizen, the immigration service could deport him and bar him from re-entry as an undesirable alien. He again said yes.

“The district attorney will make a motion to dismiss the remaining pending charges after sentencing,” said Assistant District Attorney Roger Gunson. “Other than that promise, has anyone made any promises to you, such as a lesser sentence or probation, or any reward?”

“No.”

Of course that was a lie. The promise made to Polanski was that if he pleaded guilty he would walk free after his mandatory mental evaluation. In September, the judge ordered Polanski to jail for a 90-day psychiatric study. He spent 42 days in Chino State Prison for those tests, which also were favorable and recommended probation.

The following February, hours before he was to be sentenced, Polanski fled to Paris. He was “exhausted,” said his friends, from the battery of psychiatric tests. “I’ve been tortured by this for a year and that’s enough,” he told the BBC.

That’s how it mostly remained—unfinished justice, Polanski a fugitive. In 1988, when Samantha was 25, she filed a civil suit against him, as Jane Doe, charging assault, battery, false imprisonment, and seduction. He settled with her out of court for an undisclosed amount. In 1997, Samantha, then living in Hawaii with her husband and three sons, revealed her identity and told reporters that she forgave him. There were reports that the director would return to the U.S. and be set free by a court. But, his attorney said, “Given the prospect of another huge media event and the changed personal circumstances of Mr. Polanski, which included a stable marriage and two young children, it was Mr. Polanski’s decision not to resurrect this 20-year-old case at that time for another worldwide televised media event.”

That’s how things remained until January 2008, when HBO released an award-winning documentary about the case, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, which revealed judicial misconduct between one of the district attorneys and the original trial judge. The publicity-driven judge, who had presided over Elvis Presley’s divorce and Marlon Brando’s child custody battle, ignored the probation report and the plea agreement so he would not seem “soft” on the case. Instead, he opened up the door to a jail sentence for Polanski, prompting the director to flee the country.

The misconduct presented in the film was so well documented that it prompted Polanski’s defense attorney, Douglas Dalton, and the trial prosecutor, Roger Gunson, to issue a joint statement condemning the legal improprieties and to say justice had not been served. But the judge now responsible for the case has implied while there was misconduct, there is a great reluctance to be seen as rewarding Polanski for fleeing the country.

Hollywood is split over Polanski. In 2002, he was awarded an Academy Award for directing The Pianist. And while some celebrities believe he has suffered enough by his three-decade ban from the U.S., others think he has never paid for his original crime. Polanski, for his part, has let it be known through friends that he thought the U.S. statutory rape laws are puritanical at best and utterly stupid at worst. The victim was, he is said to have told his closest friends, a temptress in the mold of Nabokov’s Lolita.

Given the passage of time, and his many supporters, including even the victim herself, it’s hard to imagine that Polanski will end up in prison. His defense attorney, Steve Corn, said on Sunday that “there’s a good chance his case will be dismissed or the sentence will be commuted to time served.” Poland and France are making a joint appeal to the United States to have Polanski released from detention. But still, the glare of publicity for a matter Polanski would prefer the world had long ago forgotten, will be punishment enough in the final act of his legal odyssey.

The Daily Beast’s Kim Masters contributed to this article.

Gerald Posner is The Daily Beast's Chief Investigative Reporter. He's the award-winning author of 10 investigative nonfiction bestsellers, ranging from political assassinations, to Nazi war criminals, to 9/11, to terrorism. His latest book, Miami Babylon: Crime, Wealth and Power—A Dispatch from the Beach, will be published in October. He lives in Miami Beach with his wife, the author Trisha Posner.