Public interest has been attracted today to a stunning ruling, when Roman Polanski was declared a free man— no longer confined to house arrest in his Alpine villa after Swiss authorities rejected a U.S. request for his extradition because of a 32-year-old sex conviction.
The decision left the Oscar-winning director free to return to France and the life of a celebrity, albeit one unable to visit the United States. Switzerland, which arrested the 76-year-old Polanski last September as he arrived receive a lifetime achievement award at a Zurich film festival, blamed U.S. authorities for its decision, citing a possible "fault in the U.S. extradition request." The United States failed to provide confidential testimony to refute defense arguments the filmmaker had actually served his sentence before fleeing Los Angeles three decades ago, Widmer-Schlumpf said.
The Swiss decision for now ends the United States' long pursuit of Polanski, who has been a fugitive since fleeing sentencing for having sex in 1977 with a 13-year-old girl. But Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley said his office will try again to have Polanski extradited if he is arrested in another country with a favorable extradition treaty.
Beyond the legal issue, the extradition request was complicated and diplomatically sensitive because of Polanski's status as a cultural icon in France and Poland, where he holds dual citizenship, and his history as a Holocaust survivor whose first wife Sharon Tate was murdered in 1969 by followers of cult leader Charles Manson in California.
France, where the filmmaker has spent much of his time, does not extradite its own citizens and Polanski has had little trouble traveling throughout Europe — although he has stayed away from Britain. The U.S. cannot appeal the decision, but Polanski is still a fugitive in the United States.
In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the Obama administration was disappointed by the Swiss action. "The United States believes that the rape of a 13-year-old child by an adult is a crime, and we continue to pursue justice in this case," Crowley said.
In Los Angeles, Cooley, who is running for state attorney general, called the decision a "disservice to justice and other victims as a whole." He accused the Swiss of using the issue of the confidential testimony as an excuse to set Polanski free. "To justify their finding to deny extradition on an issue that is unique to California law regarding conditional examination of a potentially unavailable witness is a rejection of the competency of the California courts," Cooley said. "The Swiss could not have found a smaller hook on which to hang their hat."
Widmer-Schlumpf, the Swiss justice minister, said the decision was not meant to excuse Polanski's crime, adding the issue was "not about deciding whether he is guilty or not guilty." The government said extradition had to be rejected "considering the persisting doubts concerning the presentation of the facts of the case." In justifying the decision, Switzerland also invoked what it called the "public order" — a lofty notion meaning that governments should ensure their citizens are safe from arbitrary abuse of the law. The Justice Ministry cited the fact that U.S. authorities hadn't pursued Polanski in Switzerland previously, even though he's often visited the country and bought a house here in 2006. It also stressed that the victim, Samantha Geimer, who long ago publicly identified herself, has joined in Polanski's bid for dismissal.
The acclaimed director of "Rosemary's Baby," "Chinatown" and "The Pianist" was accused of plying his victim with champagne and part of a Quaalude during a 1977 modeling shoot and raping her. He was initially indicted on six felony counts, including rape by use of drugs, child molesting and sodomy, but pleaded guilty to one count of unlawful sexual intercourse.
In exchange, the judge agreed to drop the remaining charges and sentence him to prison for a 90-day psychiatric evaluation. However, he was released after 42 days by an evaluator who deemed him mentally sound and unlikely to offend again.
The judge responded by saying he was going to send Polanski back to jail for the remainder of the 90 days and that afterward he would ask Polanski to agree to a "voluntary deportation." Polanski then fled the country on the eve of his Feb. 1, 1978, sentencing.
"Polanski got away with a lot, but it's not all black and white," said Loyola Law School professor Stan Goldman. "I don't see the D.A. rushing to investigate the very palpable evidence of misconduct in the original case. And the victim said they were hurting her every time they brought this up. So there are many shades of gray."
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