Skip to main content

Court considering whether Polanski needed for ruling on case dismissal

Famed director Roman Polanski is under house arrest at his chalet in Gstaad, Switzerland.
Famed director Roman Polanski is under house arrest at his chalet in Gstaad, Switzerland.
  • Deputy DA wants Polanski in court; director's attorney calls for dismissal
  • Court asked to consider motion to dismiss charges against director in his absence
  • Polanski fled the U.S. years ago, before being sentenced for a sex offense charge
  • The director is under house arrest in Switzerland, where he was arrested in September
  • Roman Polanski
  • Extradition
  • Crime
  • Movies
  • Celebrity News

Los Angeles, California (CNN) -- A California appeals court Thursday heard arguments on whether a lower court can consider a motion to dismiss a decades-old sex offense charge against film director Roman Polanski -- without Polanski being present.

The three-judge panel from the 2nd District Court of Appeal will rule later on the issue. As they left the hearing, both prosecutors and Polanski's attorneys declined to comment publicly.

Polanski, 76, is under house arrest in Gstaad, Switzerland. He was arrested in September on a U.S. warrant stemming from a case more than three decades ago.

Polanski pleaded guilty in August 1977 to having unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl five months earlier. He was 43 at the time. Prosecutors in Los Angeles dropped other charges in exchange for the guilty plea.

But Polanski fled the country before he was sentenced after learning that the judge in the case might not go along with the short jail term he expected to get in exchange for the plea. He remained free, mostly living in France, before his arrest. Swiss authorities earlier this month released him from jail on $4.5 million bail "pending extradition" to the United States.

In February -- before Polanski was arrested -- Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Peter Espinoza denied a request by Polanski's lawyers to throw out the charge, but left the door open to reconsider. The judge said in effect that he was tossing out the request without considering its merit because Polanski was not present.

Polanski's attorneys appealed, saying Espinoza could consider that ruling without Polanski being present, said Daniel Potter, spokesman for the appeals court.

Deputy District Attorney Phyllis Asayama argued Thursday that Polanski should be in court before the charge against him can be dismissed.

"He had other options, but he did not follow up," she said, referring to legal moves in the 1970s and '80s. "Do we say to this defendant and every defendant that flight is an option? I think not."

Polanski attorney Chad Hummel, meanwhile, called "for dismissal in the interest of justice."

The appeals court's decision on the matter will not determine whether the charge against Polanski can be thrown out, Potter said. However, it could set the stage for Espinoza to consider -- or delay consideration of -- the motion to dismiss the charge.

During the hearing in February, Espinoza acknowledged problems with the way Polanski's case was handled years ago, mentioning a documentary film that portrays backroom deals between prosecutors and a media-obsessed judge who was worried his public image would suffer if he didn't send Polanski to prison. "It's hard to contest some of the behavior in the documentary was misconduct," the judge said.

Polanski attorney Chad Hummel told the judges Thursday that if the charge is not dismissed, there should at least be an evidentiary hearing on the legal mistakes alleged to have been made by the judge and others in the documentary.

"The people have sworn to facts that for 30 years they have known to be false," he said of prosecutors.

Judge Dennis Perluss questioned whether Polanski had an alternative rather than fleeing. Judge Fred Woods, meanwhile, noted that "Polanski had avenues in the trial courts, but he did not pursue them."

Prosecutors have argued that dismissing the Polanski case would be a miscarriage of justice and allow him to escape punishment for his actions.

Among those in court for Thursday's hearing was Marina Zenovich, who made the 2008 HBO documentary discussed by attorneys -- "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired."

"I must say it's very bizarre to be sitting in court and hear my name or my film," she told reporters afterward. "I mean, it's not what I thought would happen, although people predicted it."

Asked her opinion, Zenovich said, "I think there should be an evidentiary hearing. I've thought that since February when there was the last hearing."

A hearing, she said, would allow a court to get to hear testimony from those involved in the case at the time -- including retired prosecutor David Wells. Wells told CNN's Wolf Blitzer in October that he "buttered up" his role in the Polanski case for the documentary crew, and lied about trying to goad a judge to sentence Polanski to prison.

Polanski's arrest, Wells said, made his public exposure inevitable.

"I'm going to tell it the way it is, and if I take a beating over it, I deserve it," he said.

Zenovich said Thursday, "In my view, Polanski fled because of judicial misconduct. Unfortunately, the judge is deceased, so that's why I think it would be important to have an evidentiary hearing."

Polanski agreed to pay his victim $500,000 to settle a damage claim she filed against him nearly 12 years after the crime, according to court documents released in October. Polanski still owed the money, plus $100,000 in interest, three years after the 1993 settlement, according to the documents.

The victim sought money for damages suffered when Polanski had sex with her. She said he plied her with alcohol and quaaludes during a photo shoot at the Hollywood Hills home of actor Jack Nicholson.

It's not clear whether Polanski completed paying the debt to the woman, although the court papers document efforts by her lawyers to garnish residual and other payments owed to Polanski by the Screen Actors Guild, movie studios and other Hollywood businesses.

The victim came forward long ago and has made her identity public, saying she was disturbed by how the criminal case had been handled.

Samantha Geimer, now in her 40s and a married mother of three, called in January for the case to be tossed out. Her attorney, Larry Silver, again reiterated her position Thursday, saying details of the case harm her every time the story is in the news.

CNN's Paul Vercammen contributed to this report.