As a journalist who covered the 1977 prosecution of Roman Polanski from the start, I was the only reporter in the courtroom throughout who knew the judge.
And I can say without equivocation that Laurence J. Rittenband was one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met, as well as one of the most corrupt. No, he wasn’t taking dollars or deeds under the table. His corruption ran much deeper.
But first, some background.
I started at the Santa Monica Evening Outlook in December, 1976, at the age of 30, assigned to the cover the courts and tackle special projects, or what later came to be called “investigative reporting.”
The Santa Monica Superior Court — officially the Los Angeles County Superior Court West District —covers the richest part of Los Angeles County, from Malibu in the north to Beverly Hills and Westwood on the east and down to Venice on the south.
Bel Air, Pacific Palisades, Westwood, and Brentwood all fell within its jurisdiction.
Celebrities made frequent appearances. I covered a Bob Dylan’s child custody dispute, the battle over the state of Groucho Marx, a baseball assault by Evel Knievel, and a Raquel Welch’s wrongful death suit against UCLA alleging malpractice in the death of her father. I even met a guy named Orenthal James Simpson who was getting a divorce [the case was considered so minor that I didn’t even write about it].
I was the only reporter covering the Santa Monica courthouse on a regular basis, and I got to know most of the judges, who would direct reporters parachuting in for celebrity cases to me for explanations about the courthouse and its players.
I had free access to the District Attorney’s office, and would hang out with the attorneys during free time, since they were the best possible sources in covering criminal cases.
When I first set foot in the courthouse, I’d never covered a trial. But reporters are expected to be quick studies, and I was.
Since a judge is supposed to be the one impartial person in a courtroom [both prosecutors and defense attorneys are advocates for their respective cases], one of the first steps I took in deciphering the legal maze I’d entered was to talk to the judge.
Scrapbooks and the California Penal Code
Rittenband was more than eager to help. As I would discover, among his other vices, hizzoner was a raging egotist, who kept every press clipping about his high profile cases in leather-bound scrapbooks, maintained by Leonard Walton, the Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriff who served as his bailiff.
Any questions I had about legal motions and the arcane twists of the California Penal and Evidence Codes the judge would answer as we sat in his chambers.
I had plenty of questions, and the judge’s answers were always accurate and precise, and I was grateful for the help, which let me explain events accurately and clearly to my readers. Thanks in part to his help, I was able to write stories that won awards from the State Bar of California and the American Bar Association, among others.
Rittenband was what my dad would’ve called a “banty,” a short, feisty fellow with a temperament like a bantam rooster: preening, assertive, and always alert for any encroachments on his claimed turf.
He was also, I would learn over time, brazenly arrogant, quick to take offense, and incapable of suffering fools gladly. And anyone who dared challenge his elevated self-image would find themselves the target of venomous, ill-concealed rage.
Laurence J. Rittenband, I would learn, was also a “prosecutor’s judge,” and
over time I realized that his biases could infect a case, especially if a defense attorney was even mildly inept or failed to show him the deference he believed his due. [Later I would see him play the role of prosecutor from the bench, actually taking over the questioning of witnesses to intimidate them into conceding points that were invariably favorable to the prosecution.]
Enter Roman Polanski
As the longest-serving judge on the Santa Monica bench, he had first pick of all the cases that came into the courthouse, and he liked celebrity trials. So when Elvis divorced Priscilla, Rittenband was the judge. And when Roman Polanski’s case arrived in the courthouse on 20 April 1977, Supervising Judge Edward Rafeedie sent him upstairs to Department D, Rittenband’s bailiwick.
Rittenband seemed to glow when the press thronged his courtroom, and that day was no exception. And the press didn’t let him down.
The case moved forward, with the occasional hearing to settle points of law and the timing of events, and reporters were always there every time Polanski or his attorneys made their scheduled appearances.
The judge was in control, and everything was going the way he liked it. But not so Samantha Geimer, the young woman at the center of case, who had found herself the target of a second and quite legal assault, this one by the press.
Domestic newspaper, television, and wire service reporters left the young woman and her family alone, since the names of rape victims were never published, especially those of minors. But the U.S. tabloids and the more sensationalist of the European press were another story, deploying their hordes of paparazzi in search of photos.
One publication offered me $25,000 for the “inside story” on the young woman, and I was offered another hefty sum if I would help a photographer grab an ambush shot of her. Twenty-five grand was a tidy sum for back in ‘77, more than I made in a year, and that just for telling what I already knew but hadn’t reported. But I wasn’t tempted.
Events played out in their expected way until one afternoon six days before the scheduled start of the trial, when I would play an inadvertent but central role in determining the course of the judicial debacle that was to follow.
Prosecutor Roger Gunson and his boss, District Attorney John Van de Kamp, had been meeting with Douglas Dalton, Polanski’s attorney, and Larry Silver, who represented Samantha Geimer and her family.
Geimer’s victimization at the hands of the stalkerazzi left her family unwilling to see the young woman subjected to full glare of the media spotlight that would come from taking the stand in front of an avid audience of reporters, eager to report every detail of the events of 10 March. Silver told the prosecutor that Geimer wouldn’t testify; neither she nor her family would consent to being victimized again.
Polanski had been indicted on charges of rape by use of drugs, perversion, sodomy, commission of a lewd and lascivious act upon a child under fourteen, and furnishing a controlled substance to a minor. For the victim and her family, the ideal outcome would be a guilty plea to any one of the charges so that they could pursue a lawsuit to seek civil damages outside of the media spotlight’s glare.
There would be no trial; all that remained was to negotiate the plea, including any sentence the judge would impose.
Rittenband learns a lesson
I knew the negotiations were underway, so I decided to cover the current case in Rittenband’s courtroom, where I’d be able to see the attorneys should they appear for a conference in chambers.
The trial at hand was another rape case, one that had taken place in a West Los Angeles board-and-care group home for psychiatric patients.
The victim was a nineteen-year-old schizophrenic who had been raped over a prolonged period by a fellow resident.
She was a difficult witness, and the prosecutor had only managed to elicit her story through a long and painful examination. I was struck by the strange quiet dignity she possessed as she slowly revealed the painful details of her ordeal by a young man she had trusted.
The heart of the criminal justice process is the right of a defendant to confront his accuser, and so the defense attorney rose to ask his questions when the prosecutor had finished.
After he managed to draw out a few answers, the young woman folded her arms across her chest and retreated into herself, responding to the next question with a slow left to right movement of her head. When asked again, she simply froze, sitting immobile in the witness box [one I would later occupy myself].
Every subsequent question was met with no response. Frustrated, the defense counsel look to the judge.
Gently, Rittenband instructed the woman so answer, explaining that it was the defendant’s right to have his attorney ask her questions.
She remained mute.
Rittenband tried again, this time with more force.
And so it continued, the judge’s voice slowly gaining intensity with each refusal until he was thundering at her in raspy-throated high dudgeon.
With each non-response he grew angrier, finally threatening to jail her for contempt unless she answered. When she remained silent, he threatened again. And when she again refused to answer, the told Leonard Walton to take her into custody.
Lennie, a tall, genial fellow with a wry sense of humor, looked aghast, then rose from his desk and walked over to the witness stand, then escorted the young woman through the door in the back of the courtroom that led to the holding cells where suspects were kept.
Maybe spending five days in jail for contempt would give her incentive to talk, the judge said, adjourning the trial for the day.
Stunned, I walked out of the courtroom and headed back to the paper to write it up. Later I would learn that the sentence was illegal under California law.
The next day, 3 August, I was back in court. Though I had written the story the previous afternoon, the Evening Outlook was an afternoon paper, published to reach readers coming home from work, so my story wouldn’t appear until the next afternoon. That meant the judge hadn’t seen the story when the young woman was brought back into court to give her a second chance to tell her story.
The next morning. 3 August, she was brought back into the courtroom, handcuffed and wearing one-piece jail inmate’s garb. But what drew gasps from several spectators, myself among them, was her face, a mass of angry bruises.
She managed to last through the cross-examination with a quiet dignity. After she left the stand, I talked to one of the deputies downstairs, where I learned that she had been beaten by several African American women after she refused to speak to them, a silence they took to be racist contempt rather than the schizophrenic withdrawal that it was.
I went back to the paper, again too late for the day’s deadline, to file a story on the beating and her testimony.
The next day, 4 August, I was sitting in Rittenband’s court when the Polanski attorneys trooped in, meeting with the judge for an hour in chambers as they hammered out the final details of the plea.
That afternoon my story on the beating appeared.
The judge makes his own plea
The next morning, as the judge left the bench during a recess in the rape trial he summoned me into his chambers.
“Why’d you have to write that story?” he asked. He was actually pleading with me, I realized.
The judge had been barraged with calls and complaints from his friends, a circle whose center was the Hillcrest Country Club, the elite Jewish country club across Olympic Boulevard from his condo in Century City.
The wives of his best friends were angry. Asking him, “How could he send a mentally ill woman to jail and let her get beaten like that?”
“Why did have to write that?”
“It happened in open court, and everybody saw her. I had to write it because it was newsworthy,” I explained.
For the first time since he’d taken the bench, Judge Laurence J. Rittenband had been forced to confront the negative consequences of his own actions, and he hated it.
Next: The impact on Polanski