The Los Angeles Times used the word “dumbfounded” to describe Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley’s reaction to the Swiss rejection of his request that Roman Polanskibe extradited to the United States, but was he really? Looking at the timing of the extradition request, the fact that it came six months after Polanski’s lawyers filed for a hearing in order to introduce new evidence of judicial misconduct in his case seems to indicate that Cooley was using Polanski as a platform to generate publicity for his run for the office of California Attorney General.
The 77-year-old movie director, who was jailed for 69 days and then kept under house arrest in Switzerland another eight months, has been treated as a political football to score points by both Cooley and the Swiss government.
in January 2009, Polanski’s lawyers’ made a request for a hearing in order to end the outstanding case against him on the basis of the new evidence. Polanski has long contended that he fulfilled the terms of his plea bargain by spending 42 days in a California prison for psychiatric observation.
Polanski’s motion was successfully stymied by the L.A. District Attorney’s Office, which argued that Polanski had to be present for the court to consider his motion. Because the Oscar-winning film director was a fugitive from justice, he had forfeited his entitlement to have his motion heard by the court.
Lawyers for Polanski argued that the D.A.’s Office was using his fugitive status to avoid addressing the serious issues of misconduct by both the presiding judge and the D.A.’s office. One of the former D.A.’s Office employees who allegedly improperly interfered with the case is now a judge on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Polanski’s lawyers, at the time, also failed to get his case moved out of L.A. Count on the basis of bias against their client.
L.A. D.A. Steve Cooley reportedly received intelligence that Roman Polanski was due to arrive in Zurich in late September 2009 to attend a movie festival, where he would be given a lifetime achievement award. This was six months after a California judge ruled that the court would only consider the new evidence if he returned to Los Angeles. Six months later, Cooley dispatched an arrest warrant to Switzerland and Polanski was picked up and put in jail. In October, the United States via the State Department officially petitioned for his extradition.
Polanski had already reached a civil settlement in excess of $500,000 with his victim, Samantha Geimer. Geimer has stated repeatedly since 1997 that she believes the case against Polanski should be dropped.
In 1978, acting finding out that the judge handling his case had reneged on his plea bargain and was going to throw the book at him, Polanski fled the United States the day before he was to be sentenced. He had pleaded guilty to one count of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor (statutory rape).
Returning to California either voluntarily or via extradition would open Polanski up to being tried on the grand jury charges that had been dropped as part of his plea bargain deal. The additional charges included sodomy (oral and anal copulation) and providing a controlled substance to a minor. He could have faced 50 years in prison. Returning to California could mean the 77-year old may have died in prison, either from old age or the jail house justice meted out to child molesters.
Swiss officials initially cooperated with Cooley, arresting Polanski though it had allowed the filmmaker free egress over its borders for years (he bought a ski chalet in Gstaad in 2006), apparently as part of an attempt to curry favor with the Obama Administration. The U.S government has been embroiled with the Swiss government over the Swiss bank UBS abetting tax-dodging by American citizens.
Ironically, once a Swiss-American deal over UBS broke down in June 2010, the chances of Polanski’s being extradited to California became moot.
It is apparent from studying the record that Superior Court Judge Laurene J. Rittenband, who handled the Polanski statutory rape case, was intensely political himself, craving high profile cases. In 1977, when it became apparent that Polanski was going to be recommended for probation after going through a psychiatric exam that revealed he was not a mentally deranged sexual offender, the publicity minded Rittenband decided he would impose a sentence on Polanski of his own devising.
In highly unorthodox judicial maneuvers, Rittenband came to the conclusion that he would defy the probation report and impose his own sentence of 90 days on Polanski by making him undergo another psychiatric exam in the Chino State Prison. That way, he would not lose face with the press, letting such a high profile celebrity get off with such light treatment. Rittenband was very sensitive to his press coverage, and kept copious scarp books filled with his press clippings.
The lawyer for Polanski’s victim, Samantha Geimer, told the court the she and her family did not want this case to go to trial in order to save her from the damaging publicity. They did not want Polanski to be imprisoned, either.
Rittenband took Polanski’s defense lawyer Bart Dalton and Assistant District Attorney Roger Gunson into his chambers and mapped out his strategy. He informed them that he intended to send Polanski to Chino for 90 days for a psychiatric examination, which would represent his de facto imposing a prison sentence on the director. (Aside from being a subterfuge, to do so in itself was a highly unethical as the probation report did not recommend jail time and Polanski already had undergone a psychiatric examination). After serving his time in Chino, Rittenband would then act on the recommendation of the parole report and put Polanski on parole.
Bizarrely, Rittenband then told Dalton and Gunson that they would argue the case before him as if he had not yet arrived at a decision. This was for the benefit of the press and the judge’s reputation. The two lawyers, defense and prosecutor, went through with the charade, though both were highly uncomfortable with Rittenband’s behavior. Everyone knew that after Polanski was examined at Chino, the psychiatric report would favor him and the probationary report would recommend probation.
Judge Ritteband died in 1993. According to hisNew York Times obituary, he vowed to stay on the bench until Polanski was brought to justice, making him Inspector Javert to Polanski’s Jean Valjean. When he finally retired in 1989, he said “I can’t wait that long,” but added the caveat: “I’ll quote a Gilbert & Sullivan opera: ‘I’ve got him on my list.’ “
Although Judge Rittenband had handled other high-profile celebrity cases involving Marlon Brando, Cary Grant and Elvis Presley, it was his some-would-say persecution of Roman Polanski that made him famous (or infamous, depending on one’s point of view) and earned him an obituary in America’s premier newspaper.
Judge Rittenband had allowed Roman Polanski to leave the United States in 1977 to direct the movie Hurricane. Subsequently, the director was photographed in a beer tent at the Munich Octoberfest in the company of attractive women and was ordered back tot he U.S. by Rittenband, who had lost face. Polanski complied and then accepted his incarceration at Chino, understanding that it would represent his only jail time.
Rittenband reportedly was incensed when Polanski was released from Chino after only 42 days. Ninety-day exams at Chino seldom took the full term, but Polanski being released after only six weeks in stir was unique. As expected, neither the psychiatrists or the probation officers thought he was a threat. The parole report recommendation was, as expected, that he be put on probation. Rittenband had been shown up.
A perturbed Judge Rittenband had Dalton and Gunson into his chambers again. He announced he was reneging on his deal to put Polanski on parole after Chino. His new gambit was to sentence Polanski to jail, with the caveat that he would be released after 48 days (which would make up the original 90 day sentence). He also demanded that Polanski waive his right to fight deportation and let himself be deported by Rittenband.
As Dalton pointed out in the 2008 documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, it was illegal for Rittenband to step into issue of deportation as that fell under the aegis of the federal government’s responsibility for immigration.
Rittenband wanted another mock trial, and as Dalton and Gunson exited his chambers, they were both perturbed at this latest blatant example of his ongoing judicial misconduct. When Dalton asked Gunson, who favored Polanski being released and paroled, whether he could trust Rittenband, Gunson’s words signaled he could not. Dalton subsequently drew up a petition to have Rittenband removed as a presiding judge, a move he says was supported by Gunson.
Roman Polanski subsequently fled the United States rather than put his fate back into Judge Rittenband’s hands. Polanski has long contended that he fled the U.S. as someone overheard the judge at a country club saying that he was going to throw the book at the director. Rittenband’s subsequent statement at the time of his retirement seems to validate Polanski’s fears.
In March 2010, Roman Polanski’s lawyers were back in court, seeking a dismissal of his case on the basis of judicial and prosecutorial misconduct. This would have terminated the extradition request against the director. They asked that if the court failed to dismiss the charges against Polanski or sentence him in abentia, they wanted a sealed record that they claimed would support their charges of legal misconduct revealed publicly. The sealed record would reveal that Assistant D.A. Roger Gunson’s plan to file a motion for dismissal against Judge Rittenband was improperly interfered with.
Allegedly, Stephen Trott and Michael Montagna, the then-chief deputy and supervising deputy of the L.A. D.A.’s office, informed Gunson that Rittenband admitted to behaving unethically. However, they forbade him from filing the petition for disqualification. Also, it is alleged that Judge Rittenband had improper contacts with a defense lawyer who was anxious to have a spot on the high profile Polanski case, either on the side of the defense or the prosecution.
Polanski’s motions got him nowhere but likely had an impact on the Swiss. The more liberal Western social democracies often are aghast at the administration of American justice, such as the death penalty. Remanding Polanski to the United States might prove a death sentence.
The Swiss Ministry of Justice, in justifying its release of Roman Polanski, faulted the Americans for not asking for him to be extradited earlier. Since the Americans hadn’t pursued Polanski legally in the four years since he bought property in Switzerland, it gave him a false sense of security. The director would not have entered the country had he known that he was subject to arrest and deportation.
There is every reason to believe that the 2009 arrest request from Steve Cooley was a reaction to the legal developments earlier in the year, when Polanski’s lawyers made their request that the case be dropped. Elected district attorney in 2000, he had not gone directly after Polanski in previous years.
The Swiss Ministry of Justice cited other technicalities justifying their release of Polanski, technicalities that technically should have had no bearing on the case if it wasn’t part of an international soccer match almost rivaling the World Cup.
The Swiss Ministry of Justice first asked if Polanski could be tried in absentia in Switzerland, but the California court demurred. It then decided it should determine whether the 42 days out of an original 90-day sentence Polanski spent in Chino State Prison for a psychiatric evaluation represented his having fulfilled his sentence as part of the plea bargain deal his original attorneys had struck with Judge Rittenband.
As we can see from the behavior of Rittenband, the administration of the law in the pursuit of the justice does not always hew to the straight and narrow. Straight is the gate, and narrow is the path, but none of us are Christ Jesus. The Swiss Ministry of Justice decided it could use its discretion, too, seeing as the extradition treaty with the United States mandated extradition only for serious crimes with long sentences. Was Steve Cooley planning on asking the California courts to throw the book at Polanski and give him 50 years? Since it couldn’t be sure, due to the lack of transparency in its dealings with the L.A. D.A.’s office, it felt it could not take the chance and violate the spirit of the Swiss-American extradition treaty. The intransigence of the D.A.’s office worked against the extradition request.
The Swiss demanded to know about Judge Rittenband’s machinations. Specifically, the Ministry of Justice wanted the sealed record that Polanski’s attorneys had requested, a motion opposed by L.A. D.A. Steve Cooley.
According to the Los Angeles Times, legal experts contend that Switzerland’s Ministry of Justice has no right to retry the case but is required to rule on the merits of the American request for extradition of a fugitive only on administrative and technical grounds. The Swiss were supposed to determine whether American officials had fulfilled the proper procedures in filing their request for extradition; they are not supposed to consider the actual merits of the case.
The Swiss Ministry of Justice, in announcing its decision not to extradite Polanski to the U.S. and let him go free, declared that American officials did not turn over documentation it had requested. Thus, it was rejecting the extradition request as it was “undermined” by this “serious fault” on the part of the U.S.
The Swiss Minister of Justice went further in declaring that Polanski had fulfilled his sentence by serving 42 days. In essence, the Swiss Ministry of Justice was violating international protocols with its decision, which ultimately was political. But the Polanski case had been political for some time, drawing in President Obama (who was given a letter from Polanski by French President Sarkozy).
Steve Cooley issued a formal statement declaring that the Swiss Justice Ministry’s decision to free Polanski was a “disservice to justice and other victims as a whole.”
Yet, Samantha Geimer had publicly asked for the persecution of Polanski to be stopped, as Cooley was once again making her infamous for her ordeal suffered 33 years ago. She had declared she was past it and had forgiven the director. Apparently, in the pursuit of higher office, the demands for publicity outstripped the residual rights of the victim, no matter which way Cooley parsed it.