US judge reneged on Polanski plea deal, says former prosecutor

A Los Angeles judge privately told lawyers he would renege on a plea deal and imprison Roman Polanski for having sex with a teenage girl in 1977, a former prosecutor has testified, setting the stage for the renowned director to flee the US as a fugitive.

previously sealed transcript – obtained late on Sunday by The Associated Press – of testimony by retired deputy district attorney Roger Gunson supports Polanski’s claim that he fled on the eve of sentencing in 1978 because he did not think he was getting a fair deal.

Mr Gunson said during closed-door testimony in 2010 that the judge broke a promise to let Polanski go free after state prison officials had determined he should not serve jail time.


Roman Polanski fled the US in 1978 (Joel Ryan/PA)

“The judge had promised him on two occasions … something that he reneged on,” Mr Gunson said.

“So it wasn’t surprising to me that, when he was told he was going to be sent off to state prison … that he could not or would not trust the judge.”

Defence lawyer Harland Braun said on Friday — in expectation of the transcript’s release — that the development would renew his effort to have Polanski sentenced in his absence, which would end his status as a fugitive from justice.

Mr Braun has unsuccessfully tried that before with prosecutors asserting and judges agreeing that Polanski needs to show up in Los Angeles Superior Court to resolve the matter.

Release of the transcript, which was ordered by a California appeals court on Wednesday after Los Angeles district attorney George Gascon dropped longstanding objections his predecessors made to its release, may support Polanski’s claims that he was going to be railroaded by a corrupt judge.

The legal saga has played out on both sides of the Atlantic as a recurring scene over four decades of a life marred by tragedy and also triumph.

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Roman Polanski and wife Sharon Tate, who was among seven people murdered in 1969 by followers of Charles Manson (PA)

As a child, Polanski escaped the Krakow Ghetto during the Holocaust. His wife, Sharon Tate, was among the seven people murdered in 1969 by followers of Charles Manson.

Polanski, 88, who was nominated for Oscars for 1974’s Chinatown and 1979’s Tess, won the best director statuette for The Pianist in 2003. But he was not able to accept it because he faces arrest in the US.

France, Switzerland and Poland rejected bids to extradite him back to the United States and he continues to be feted in Europe, winning praise and working with major actors.

But the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences expelled him from its membership in 2018 after the MeToo movement spurred a reckoning about sexual misconduct.

Polanski’s 13-year-old victim testified before a grand jury that during a photo shoot at Jack Nicholson’s house in March 1977 when the actor was not home, Polanski gave her champagne and part of a sedative, then forced her to have sex. The girl said she did not fight him
because she was afraid of him but her mother later called police.

When the girl refused to testify in court, Polanski pleaded guilty to unlawful sex with a minor in exchange for prosecutors dropping drug, rape and sodomy charges.

Roman says, ‘How can I trust the judge that’s lied twice?’ So he takes off to EuropeDefence lawyer Harland Braun

Polanski has argued there was judicial misconduct in his case. In 2010, a Los Angeles court took sealed testimony from Mr Gunson about his recollections of promises made to the director by the judge in 1977.

Polanski’s lawyers, who were in the room during Mr Gunson’s testimony but could not use it in court, have long sought to unseal that transcript to help their case.

Judge Laurence Rittenband, now deceased, had been swayed by publicity in the case and changed his mind several times about the punishment Polanski should face, Mr Braun said.

After a report by probation officials that Polanski should serve no time behind bars, Judge Rittenband sent the director to state prison for a 90-day diagnostic evaluation to help determine what punishment he should face.

The judge said that as long as Polanski received a favourable report from the prison, he would serve no additional time, Mr Gunson said.

After six weeks of evaluation in prison, Polanski was released with a recommendation he only serve probation, Mr Braun said.

But Judge Rittenband thought the probation and prison reports were superficial and a “whitewash”, said Mr Gunson, who agreed they downplayed or misstated Polanski’s crimes.

The judge privately told Mr Gunson and Polanski’s lawyer that he had to be tougher because of criticism in the news media.

He said he would send Polanski to prison for a longer term but would then get him released within 120 days, which was possible under sentencing rules at the time.

“Roman says, ‘How can I trust the judge that’s lied twice?’ So he takes off to Europe,” Mr Braun said.

Mr Gunson acknowledged during his testimony that the judge had discretion to sentence Polanski up to 50 years because there had been no agreed-upon sentence. But Mr Gunson objected to the “sham” proceedings the judge was orchestrating and felt he had broken promises to Polanski.

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