The real lesson of the latest iteration of the Roman Polanski case isn’t about justice. It’s more revealing about Americans as a people than it is about an incident that took place in Jack Nicholson’s home so many years ago.
I have a unique perspective on the case, and I’ve been following it since the day Polanski was arrested in his room at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel by the same Los Angeles Police detective whose conduct played a major role in tanking the O.J. Simpson murder prosecution.
I was the only reporter regularly covering the Santa Monica courthouse where the drama played out, and I was privy to the players and the behind-the-scenes maneuvering and backtracking which led directly to the debacle we’re seen unfolding 33 years later.
What most astounds me about the case is the colossal failure of the American news media to accurately report the facts of the case, which have been readily available since Marina Zenovich released her brilliant documentary Roman Polanski, Wanted and Desired [in which I am featured].
Some of the news coverage has been nothing short of appalling, misrepresenting basic facts of the case which were well documented and in the public record before the film’s release.
The overt facts of the case are simple; so too are the covert truths.
In this and two subsequent entries I’ll lay them out, along with the grievous failure of today’s press to report the story accurately.
For today, let’s start with a basic chronology:
10 March 1977: Polanski picks up 13-year-old Samantha Geimer at her mother’s home for a photo shoot for French Vogue. They end up at the home of his friend Jack Nicholson, where he gives her a drug and champagne and engage in sex, which she says was not consensual.
11 March: Polanski is arrested at the Beverly Wilshire, where he is found in possession of the drug [Quualude] and the negatives from the photo shoot. Actress Anjelica Huston, Nicholson’s partner, is arrested at the actor’s home for possession of cocaine. She will later turn state’s witness in exchange for dismissal of the charge.
24 March: Polanski is indicted by the Los Angeles County Grand Jury on charges of rape by use of drugs, perversion, sodomy, lewd and lascivious act upon a child under fourteen [statuory rape], and furnishing a controlled substance to a minor.
20 April: Polanski appears in the Santa Monica courthouse, where the case is assigned to Department D, the domain of Superior Court Judge Laurence J. Rittenband. I knew the judge, and had sat through the critical case of a mob-related triple murder case in his courtroom that had ended three months previously. Knowing I had never covered criminal courts, the judge had offered to mentor me in the labyrinth of the California Penal Code, and we had talked frequently in his chambers about matters of law.
30 April: I published the first of what would be several exclusive stories about the Polanski case, reporting that the director had turned down an offer to plead guilty to one count of statutory rape. Douglas Dalton, his attorney, countered with an offer to plead guilty to contributing to the delinquency of a minor, which was rejected.
20 May: The judge refuses to allow Dalton to question Samantha Geimer before the trial.
21 May: I published another exclusive, revealing that detectives had found
nude photos of the girl during the hotel search.
2 June: I published another exclusive, revealing that the defense plans to seek a gag order based on my previous exclusives. The defense would back down two days later, possibly because they knew the publicity-hungry judge wouldn’t agree. [The judge kept leather-bound scrapbooks containing every story printed about his cases.]
17 June: The judge sets trial for August 9, eight years to the day after the murder of Polanski’s spouse Sharon Tate by members of the Charles Manson Family.
1 August: After the judge announces he will reserve seats for the press covering the case, I report that twenty-three journalists had signed up, representing the New York Times, the New York Daily News, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Daily News, Newsweek, Oui magazine, Pandora [a German magazine], four London newspapers, Associated Press, Reuters, United Press International, Agence France Presse, the Santa Monica Evening Outlook [my paper], and ten free-lancers.
4 August: Dalton and prosecutor Roger Gunson meet with the judge in his chambers and reach an agreement in which Polanski will plead guilt to one count of statutory rape — the original prosecution offer. Not revealed at the subsequent press conference is the judge’s stipulation that Polanski will go to state prison for a psychiatric evaluation, then be sentenced to time served.
8 August: On the eighth anniversary of Sharon Tate’s murder, Polanski pleads out, answering 46 questions from a seven page script read out by Gunson. Lawrence Silver, Geimer’s attorney reads a three-page letter urging the court to accept the plea because the publicity resulting from trial would create “a stigma which would attach itself to her for a lifetime.” Polanski is ordered to undergo tests by two psychiatrists before sentencing, which is scheduled for September 19. . . .In a written statement, Los Angeles County District Attorney John Van de Kamp states that his office violated his own policy against accepting a plea only to the most serious charge in order to “provide the victim an opportunity to grow up in a world where she will not be known as the young girl with whom Roman Polanski had intercourse.”
19 September: Rittenband finds Polanski is not a mentally disordered sex offender. Despite the recommendations of the probation department and the findings of two court-appointed psychiatrists, Rittenband orders to Chino state prison to undergo a 90-day psychiatric examination to determine appropriate sentencing. Imposition of the examination was stayed for 90 days [to December 19] to allow Polanski to wrap up details on The Hurricane.
20 September: I report that Gunson has told me that if the prison system recommends no more time for Polanski, the D.A.’s office will not object. “If that occurs, I would probably say that would be a satisfactory disposition.”
28 September: The Evening Outlook anchors the lower right front page with a three-column United Press International photo taken at the Hofbrauhaus in Munich. It depicts a smiling Polanski, clad in a denim jacket and brandishing a cigar in his right hand, and seated at a table surrounded by five beautiful women. The caption reads:
TIME OUT — Film director Roman Polanski, who was given a stay of a Santa Monica Superior Court order that he undergo a 90-day diagnostic study at a state prison, puffs a cigar as he enjoys the companionship of some young ladies at the Munich, Germany, Oktoberfest. The court stay was granted by Judge Laurence J. Rittenband after Polanski pleaded guilty to a charge of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor. The stay was to give the Polish-born director time to finish a movie on which he was working.
The same day, in a small-circulation street edition dubbed by staff the “Edsel edition,” the Los Angeles Times publishes a front page news brief derived from the caption, including the quote “Sources say Polanski came to Bavaria’s capital as a tourist and just wants to relax.” Rittenband begins receiving outraged comments from acquaintances demanding to know how he could have “let that pervert” free to cavort with more young women.
5 October: The Evening Outlook reports that Judge Rittenband is threatening to convene a special hearing to determine the circumstances of the trip.
7 October: After a 40-minute meeting with Dalton in his chambers, Rittenband orders Polanski to return from Germany to face hearings on the trip on October 21 and 24. The Evening Outlook reports that a Munich newspaper columnist whose writings were the basis for the UPI caption had told the paper that Polanski had been in the German city on film business, as well as for relaxation.
21 October: In response to subpoenas from Dalton, I and Los Angeles Times reporter Bill Farr testify that United Press International based the caption on incorrect information provided to the wire service by a desk clerk at Polanski’s Munich hotel who had no idea why Polanski was there.
24 October: Polanski and Dino DiLaurentiis testify about the trip, which was conducted for business reasons. Rittenband agrees to continue the stay to the December 19 date. During the hearing, Gunson questions Polanski about his relationship with Nastassia Kinski, who with her mother had accompanied the director on a trip to the United States and had been present in Munich as well. Rittenband declares his is satisfied with the explanations and continues the stay.
15 December: I report that Polanski has asked to begin his time at Chino the following day, and that Rittenband will sign an order to that effect.
16 December: The director surrenders at Chino.
27 January: After 44 days behind bars, Polanski is released from Chino, and returns to LA.
30 January: Over the objections of Dalton and Gunson, Rittenband announces he is going to send back to Chino for 46 more days, even though the state psychiatrists have recommended he serve no more time.
31 January: Polanski flees; Dalton advises Gunson and the court; Rittenband postpones sentencing to February 14.
3 February: Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Extradition Services Section launches its effort to return Polanski after learning the director has fled to France.
6 February: Rittenband holds in-chambers press conference denouncing Polanski
14 February: Dalton files affidavit of prejudice against Rittenband.
17 February: Rittenband meets with Deputy County Counsel John P. Farrell to prepare a written response to Dalton’s motion.
20 February: The Evening Outlook reports that Rittenband will not resist Dalton’s move to have the case transferred, but will respond the next day to Dalton’s motion.
21 February: Rittenband files his response, flatly denying any prejudice against Polanski, but “in order to avoid needless delays and court proceedings” would the case to be assigned another judge.
24 February: John P. Breckenridge, chief judge of the Los Angeles County Superior Court Criminal Division, sidesteps Dalton’s motion to remove Rittenband from the Polanski case. By placing the case off calendar because of Polanski’s fugitive status, the issue could be raised again should Polanski ever wind up in the court’s custody.
3 May: After receiving reports Polanski may have arrived in London, the D.A.’s office prepares a provisional arrest request.
12 May: D.A.’s office submits formal extradition package to U.S. Department of Justice Office of International Affairs .