Los Angeles: The pursuit of Roman Polanski will continue, but only to the extent the director allows it.
Authorities in the United States roundly denounced the decision by the Swiss government to set Polanski free, dealing another twist in a sex case that has spanned three decades and two continents.
From prosecutors in Los Angeles to justice officials in Washington, D.C., the Swiss decision was described as a disappointment and to some, an injustice.
Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley called it a "disservice to justice and other victims as a whole." The Swiss, for their part, described Polanski as "a free man."
That largely depends on the director`s movements. A warrant for his arrest remains active, effectively barring the 76-year-old from returning to the U.S., which he fled in 1978 on the eve of sentencing for a charge of having unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl.
The ruling cannot be appealed, and within hours of the ruling Polanksi appeared to have left the multimillion dollar chalet where he had been confined on house arrest since last year. He is free to return to his native France, which does not extradite its citizens.
Prosecutors have tried to arrest Polanski during his travels before, and vowed to continue the effort after Monday`s ruling.
"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," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said.
Cooley, who is running for California attorney general, said his office will work with federal officials to have Polanski returned for sentencing if he`s arrested in a country with a favorable extradition treaty. Cooley`s office said last September after Polanski`s arrest that it had previously sought his arrest in England, Thailand and Israel.
The Oscar-winning 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.
The Swiss government said its decision to reject extradition for Polanski was based in part on U.S. authorities failing to turn over transcripts of secret testimony given by the attorney who originally handled the director`s case. The testimony remains sealed, and can only be used if the former prosecutor was unavailable for an evidentiary hearing, a Los Angeles court spokesman said.
The testimony "should prove" that Polanski actually served his sentence while undergoing a court-ordered diagnostic study after charges were filed, the Swiss Justice Ministry said.
"If this were the case, Roman Polanski would actually have already served his sentence and therefore both the proceedings on which the U.S. extradition request is founded and the request itself would have no foundation," the ministry said. They also noted that Polanski`s victim, Samantha Geimer, has repeatedly asked that the case be dropped.
Cooley, who is the fifth district attorney to handle Polanski`s case, accused the Swiss of exploiting a quirk of California law to set the director free and the decision was a "rejection of the competency of the California courts.
"The Swiss could not have found a smaller hook on which to hang their hat," Cooley said in a statement. In addition to setting Polanski free, the Swiss decision Monday added to the chorus of courts that have expressed doubts about the director`s case and his treatment.
Swiss Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf said extradition had to be rejected "considering the persisting doubts concerning the presentation of the facts of the case." It now appears unlikely that the misconduct allegations raised by Polanski`s legal team will ever be addressed.
The attorneys have said the original judge handling Polanski`s case acted improperly by consulting with a prosecutor who was not assigned to the matter on sentencing issues. The judge also reneged on a sentencing deal, the attorneys have repeatedly contended.
Los Angeles prosecutors have consistently argued that the director must return to Los Angeles to argue that his case was mishandled by a now-deceased judge and a former prosecutor. Polanski has been equally unwilling to return and press his case in person.
Other courts have cited the strong likelihood that Polanski`s case, filed in 1977, was mishandled. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Peter Espinoza, who has recently presided over the case, said during a hearing last year that he believed there was evidence of "substantial misconduct."
Months later, a three justice panel of a California appeals court also cited the likelihood that there had been misconduct by the judge who originally handled Polanski`s case and a prosecutor assigned to his courtroom.
In their written ruling, the justices made their case that Polanski`s treatment by the Los Angeles judicial system had to be taken into serious consideration.
"Fundamental fairness and justice in our criminal justice system are far more important than the conviction and sentence of any one individual," the court wrote last year. Despite misgivings about Polanski`s treatment, none of the courts have ordered a hearing to determine whether the director`s case was mishandled. Such a ruling could lead to an outright dismissal of the charges against the director.
"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."
Jean Rosenbluth, a former federal prosecutor who has handled extradition cases, said Cooley`s attorneys risked harming themselves in future extradition cases if they agreed to a hearing on the misconduct issues without Polanski`s presence. "The D.A. was in a tough spot," said Rosenbluth, now a professor at the University of Southern California`s Gould School of Law. "They don`t want to set a precedent.
"The allegations are very serious," she said. "On the other hand, they were 30 years ago. It`s a really, really difficult case — just a jumble of competing principles and different circumstances."