Throughout the media’s coverage of the latest turns in the case of People v. Roman Polanski, the most common theme runs like this: The Polish-born director fled the country to avoid serving his prison sentence.
That’s simply wrong, a deft bit of spin perpetuated by the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office, which is headed by an ambitious Republican who’s running for California Attorney General.
The simple truth is that Polanski served his sentence, one agreed on by all parties to the case: Judge Laurence J. Rittendband, then-District Attorney John Van de Kamp, Polanski attorney Douglas Dalton, and Lawrence Silver, the attorney for Samantha Geimer, the young woman who was abused by Polanski.
The key date to remember is 8 August 1977, when Polanski appeared before the judge to enter his plea, playing the role of actor in a bit of courtroom drama scripted by the judge.
Rittenband had drafted a 46-question, seven-page script, an unprecedented move unparalleled in the experience of attorneys and courtroom observers. Rittenband then ordered Polanski to undergo testing by two psychiatrists before sentencing, which he then set for September 19.
The psychiatrists were to determine whether or not whether Polanski was a mentally disordered sex offender [MDSO], which would require him to register with law enforcement officials in any California city where he might live. Neither ther judge or the attorneys expected the shrinks to reach that finding.
But it was all a charade, and the agreement hammered out behind the closed doors of the judge’s chambers mandated that after the shrinks reported back, Polanski would be sent to state prison, ostensibly for an in-custody evaluation to determine what sentence would be appropriate.
The stark reality of the incarceration for diagnosis was that it was devised by the judge as a means to appease his own ego, allowing him to say “I sent him to prison.”
The reality of California law is that sentences of less than one year — a “bullet” in court-speak — are served in county jails, not prisons. Hence, the decision to impose what amounted to a prison sentence of less than a year was illegal on its face, but accepted reluctantly by the attorneys and the defendants in light of the judge’s irrational conduct in the case.
On 19 September Polanski was back in court. Based on the findings of the psychiatrists, the judge ruled Polanski was not a mentally disordered sex offender. Both psychiatrists and the Los Angeles County Probation Department recommended that no prison be imposed.
Rittenband then ordered Polanski to Chino state prison for the psychiatric examination to determine appropriate sentencing, then stayed to commitment order until 19 December to allow the director to complete pre-production work on a film he was scheduled to direct.
The next day I reported that Deputy District Attorney Roger Gunson had told me that if the prison system recommended no more time for Polanski, the D.A.’s office would not object. “If that occurs, I would probably say that would be a satisfactory disposition,” Gunson told me, which was as close to an articulation of the plea agreement he could offer.
I met a lot of prosecutors during my years at the Evening Outlook, and I respect none of them more than I do Roger Gunson. A conservative, soft-spoken Mormon, Gunson was a model prosecutor. The office joke was that Gunson was given the Polanski case because he was the only prosecutor who hadn’t “dipped his wick in jail bait.”
A journalist’s error sets the stage
Nobody could’ve predicted what happened next: a journalist’s error that angered the judge’s buddies and put yours truly on the witness stand.
It started with a photograph taken by a Munich free-lancer and a a United Press International reporter wrote up the muddled caption that was the result of the journalistic equivalent of the old “telephone game.”
On 28 September, the Santa Monica Evening Outlook printed a large front
page United Press International photo taken at the Hofbrauhaus in Munich, featuring a smiling Polanski, clad in a denim jacket and brandishing a cigar in his right hand, sitting at a table surrounded by five beautiful women. But the killer was the caption:
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 published 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.”
But it was the Outlook photo, Rittenband told me, that made him hit the roof after he received a barraged of outraged calls and comments from acquaintances demanding to know how he could have “let that pervert” free to cavort with more young women.
A week after the photo appeared, I reported that Rittenband was threatening to convene a special hearing to determine the circumstances of the trip, and the following day the judge angrily summoned Douglas Dalton to his chambers for a 40-minute tongue-lashing. At the end, the judge ordered Polanski to return to court for hearings the be held on the 21st and 24th. In the same story I wrote that the Munich newspaper columnist whose writings were the basis for the UPI caption had told us that Polanski had been in the German city on film business, as well as for relaxation.
On the 21st, I took the witness stand subpoenaed by Douglas Dalton along with Los Angeles Times reporter Bill Farr, whose paper had published a paragraph drawn from the caption in a street edition that reached about 5,000 buyers. Our testimony established that the caption was based 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.
Polanski and Dino DiLaurentiis testified on the 24th, establishing that the Munich trip had been made to meet with potential film investors, and that the photograph had been taken during a break in the talks. Rittenband then agreed to continue the stay of the confinement order to 19 December.
Of law and some judicial semantics
One thing is absolutely clear. All parties — the judge foremost among them —had agreed that Polanski’s behind-bars psychiatric exam would be the only punishment imposed. They all agreed that the state Department of Corrections would not be recommending any prison sentence in light of two psychiatric exams and a probation report which had concurred that no prison time would be appropriate given their detailed examination of the facts of the case.
That the procedure was probably illegal wasn’t discussed. But sending a defendant to a behind-bars psychiatric evaluation as a cover for a sentence clearly violated both the letter and the spirit of the law. The judge’s intent wasn’t to produce a report upon which he would deliberate and then decide; the judge and all parties involved considered the confinement as Polanski’s prison sentence. Call it stealth sentencing.
While the judge repeatedly referred to the “90-day” confinement, as the most senior criminal court judge on the Santa Monica bench, he knew full well that the 90-day period was simply the maximum legal limit on how long the state shrinks could take to complete their examination.
Typically, defendants were returned in about half that time, something the judge had experienced dozens of times during his tenure on the bench. The judge knew this. Roger Gunson knew this. John Van de Kamp knew this. Douglas Dalton knew this. Hell, even I knew this.
Under the agreement reached by all parties, once Polanski left prison, he would serve no additional time. Period. End of sentence [literally]. Once he left the gates of the California Institution of Men at Chino behind him, Polanski would have fulfilled the conditions of his plea bargain.
On 15 December I reported that Polanski had asked to begin his time at Chino the following day, and said Rittenband would sign an order to that effect, which he did. The next day, accompanied by Dalton and two friends, Polanski made his way through a paparazzi blitz and surrendered to prison officials at Chino.
On 27 January, after 42 days behind bars, Polanski was released from Chino, and returned to LA with Wolf and Dalton. At that moment, he had already served the agreed-upon sentence for his crime.
But then Rittenband’s phone started to ring, and pals at the Hillcrest Country Club started to badger him. I know this, because that’s what the judge told me. Rittenband was worried. He’d already been hounded for jailing a teenaged schizophrenic rape victim who’d then been badly beaten by fellow inmates, and he’s been hassled over that damn Oktoberfest foto.
Rittenband dropped the bombshell on the 31st. Announcing that he would send Polanski back to Chino for 46 more days, despite the recommendations of prison officials.
The next day, after hearing reports via the Hillcrest grapevine that Rittenband was telling fellow club members he’d “give Polanski the max,”the director feld the country. Rittenband then ordered sentencing held over to Valentine’s Day.
Meanwhile, on 3 February the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Extradition Services Section began its effort to return Polanski after news reports confirm the director has fled to France.
Three days later the judge held an unprecedented press conference in his chambers, denouncing the director.
On the 14th Dalton filed an affidavit of prejudice against the judge, demanding the transfer of the case to another court. Under California law, every defendant was allowed to file one affidavit of prejudice, and in every case I covered, jurisdiction was transferred.
Three days later, the judge met with Deputy County Counsel John P. Farrell to prepare a written response to Dalton’s affidavit. On the 20th I reported that Rittenband will not resist Dalton’s move to have the case transferred, but would formally respond the next day.
The next day, the judge filed his response, flatly denying any prejudice while declaring that “in order to avoid needless delays and court proceedings” the case would be assigned to another judge.
On the 24th, John P. Breckenridge, chief judge of the Los Angeles County Superior Court Criminal Division, sidestepped the affidavit by placing the case off calendar, citing Polanski’s fugitive status as the reason. The issue could be revived, Breckenridge ruled, should Polanski ever wind up in the court’s custody.
On 3 May, after receiving reports Polanski might be in London, the D.A.’s office prepared a provisional arrest request, and nine days later the office sent a formal extradition package to U.S. Department of Justice Office of International Affairs .
And there matters rested until Swiss police arrested Polanski on 26 September, initially imprisoning him, then transferring the director to house arrest at his vacation home in Gstaad, which he was not allowed to leave until Monday, when the Swiss court ordered his release.
The critical point: Polanski had served his time
According AP scribe Linda Deutsch’s report on the letter from Swiss Minister of Justice rejecting the extradition, “The Swiss said that they wanted to know whether Polanski, who was being held in a 33-year-old sex case, had already served his sentence.”
The Swiss cited in particular the refusal of Los Angeles County officials to release a transcript of a secret in camera questioning of Roger Gunson conducted after Polanski’s arrest in Zurich.
Given Gunson’s statements at the time of the original prosecution and those he made to Marina Zenovich two years ago for her documentary of the prosecution [Roman Polanski, Wanted and Desired], it’s a near-certainty that Gunson said things Steve Cooley wouldn’t like — namely, that Polanski had fulfilled his sentence, and an arrogant judge had gone bonkers over concern about his self-image.
By law, a judge can base his sentence only upon evidence introduced into trial. But Rittenband was asking anyone and everyone he knew the same question he asked me: “What the hell do I do with Polanski?”
When I was asked, I demurred, telling the judge that was his venue, not mine. Others were not nearly so reluctant. But in asking me, he was beyond all bounds of propriety and law, because the intent was clearly to discern what kind of action would play well in the media. For that alone, he should’ve been disrobed.
But I was bound to silence by the agreement we had made than anything said to me in his chambers was off the record. I only disclosed the conversation after I learned of the judge’s death, when I sent a letter to Dalton.
What can be stated without question?
- Roman Polanski did something most folks think is despicable.
- All parties involved reached an agreement on a plea and sentence.
- Judge Rittenband violated both the letter and the spirit of the law. He wasn’t interested in justice; his only concern was self-image.
- Roman Polanski fulfilled every aspect of his plea agreement, and actually served every day of the agreed state prison sentence agreed upon in the agreement.
- In fleeing the country, Polanski did not act unreasonably, given the judge’s bizarre behavior. No one involved in the original case — including the prosecutor —has disputed this conclusion.
- The office of the Los Angeles County District Attorney and the Los Angeles Superior Court have corrupted the case for self-serving reasons — in the first instance out of political ambitions, and in the second to maintain an already tarnished image.
- Polanski has actually served a sentence of 243 days in custody, which includes the original time at Chino plus the days he was imprisoned or under house arrest in Switzerland. That’s far more than the judge demanded. And for those who say house arrest is a picnic, I suggest they lock themselves indoors and not leave the house for six months then come back and let us know what they think.
- The victim in the case, an articulate mature woman who is generally overlooked by the media except as a convenient symbol in a tale of innocent-beauty-versus-the-beast, wants Polanski to be left alone.
A final consideration
Another way to look at the case is through the lens of contract law, given that a plea agreement is a contract between defendant, prosecution, and the bench.
Imagine you have signed a contract to buy a house. You negotiated a mutually price, paid the money, moved in, and settled down. Suddenly the seller confronts you with a new document, doubling the purchase price and threatening dire consequences unless you comply.
A contract had been reached, you’d fulfilled your end, and and the party in power breached it. Everybody else involved agrees with you, but the seller continues his impossible demands.
You’d go to court, wouldn’t you? You’d fulfilled the contract, and suddenly found yourself confronted with irrational and illegal demands.
The Polanski case is no different. It really is that simple.
Next: The press and the social media implode