Bringing Roman Polanski to Heel

The Los Angeles district attorney explains why he’s going after the director.

Steve Cooley

As the latest legal fighting in the Roman Polanski cases bounces from Switzerland to the California appeals courts, it’s clear that Los Angeles District Attorney Stephen L. Cooley is not letting go of this one. The lawyers representing the film director, who fled Los Angeles 30 years ago after pleading guilty to charges he had sex with a 13-year-old girl, argued this week in a letter to the court that Polanski could wind up sitting in jail in Zurich for longer than the 48 days he had left to serve when he fled in 1978.

Cooley does not care. His office asked the California courts to stay out of the case while Polanski’s extradition goes forward. Cooley wants Polanski back in Los Angeles. Given the history of the case, that will be a victory all in itself—one that would take the sting out of an old insult to the office that Cooley runs. Thirty-one years ago, Polanski fled the country before the judge in his case could finish up his sentencing. Cooley and the California courts aren’t done with him.

I interviewed the district attorney last week in his office, on another topic, and at the end of the hour, I brought up Polanski. Cooley’s deputy tried to shush him. He shrugged her off and gave me an essential insight into the tough position his office is likely to take if it succeeds in bringing Polanski to the United States.

I asked the obvious “why now?” question about Polanski’s arrest. For Cooley, the timing question is a minor one. He said that it’s routine for his office to make extradition requests; they’d made several over the years to get Polanski back. This one just happened to succeed.

Cooley wanted to hammer home the simple point that Polanski cannot escape the guilty plea he made 30 years ago. “The plea is airtight,” he said. “The plea is the Bible.” Polanski’s lawyers argued earlier this year that the case against him should be dismissed despite the guilty plea, based on supposed evidence of judicial misconduct in the case, which has now been discredited. They thought they had some wiggle room because of the slightly ambiguous history of the case. After Polanski pleaded to unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor, the judge sent him to prison for a short time for psychiatric diagnosis. It was understood by the defense and the prosecution at the time that the judge would then let him off with probation. But Polanski got word that the judge was angry and threatening to sentence him to more time, and he fled before the sentencing took place.

If Cooley is right that Polanski’s plea is solid, then the DA’s office won’t need to prove anything about this long-ago charge when they get Polanski back into court. The only open question for the judge will be his punishment. And though the director’s lawyers will of course argue otherwise, it’s hard to see why the judge who is now on the case, Peter Espinoza, should be bound by the supposed promise of a light sentence that the earlier judge, Laurence Rittenband, made in 1978. The big legal difference between then and now, of course, being of Polanski’s own making—his flight.

The DA’s office has another weapon against Polanski, members of Cooley’s staff made clear when I was in the office. That’s the other more serious charges against Polanski. Because he skipped town (yes, that’s the recurring theme here), these other charges were never dismissed, as Rittenband had indicated, pre flight, that they would be. They include rape, child molestation, oral copulation, sodomy, and providing drugs to a minor. It could be hard, however, to prove these charges 30 years after the fact.

The victim, Samantha Geimer, has said she has forgiven Polanski, though she has also said she thinks he should come back to Los Angeles to finally resolve the case. But her deposition at the time goes into great detail about what happened that night, and as much commentary on the case has pointed out, the legal and social stance toward sex crimes has become much sterner in the decades since Judge Rittenband sent Polanski for a short prison stint. Cooley has called that punishment “[a] very, very, very lenient sentence” that “would never be achievable under today’s laws.”

Does this mean that Cooley and his office will ask the judge to put Polanski away for a long time when they get him back into court? I’m actually not sure. Cooley has been careful not to signal publicly how much time his office will ask for, and he didn’t tell me, either. “We’ll deal with that when he gets back,” he said of Polanski.

It’s possible that this extradition request isn’t about sending Polanski to prison for years. He is, after all, a 76-year-old Oscar-winning director—he’s old and he’s renowned for his work. He hasn’t been accused of any other sex crimes in the intervening decades. On the other hand, once Polanski has been hauled back into a Los Angeles courtroom, where the whole focus will be on the harm he’s accused of committing, it might be hard to justify a light penalty. In any case, Cooley told me, “This case is unfinished business. It’s unfinished business, and we’ll get through it.” Polanski stuck it to the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office 31 years ago. Now Stephen Cooley is in a position to bring him to heel.