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Director Roman Polanski's Arrest Puts U.S. Justice System on World Stage

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By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 28, 2009

LOS ANGELES, Sept. 27 -- The arrest of director Roman Polanski in Switzerland on charges of fleeing sentencing for unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl in Los Angeles pushed into the diplomatic realm a case that for 31 years existed, at least in America, chiefly in the dominion of celebrity and notoriety.

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Polanski, 76, was arrested at the Zurich airport Saturday night by Swiss authorities acting at the request of the Los Angeles district attorney's office. Prosecutors there had learned of the Oscar-winning director's plans to attend a film festival in his honor, and passed a request through the U.S. Justice Department.

The arrest outraged the government of France, which has declined to extradite Polanski since he fled to his native land in 1978, after a Los Angeles judge signaled he would scotch a plea agreement in the sex case. In France, Polanski is revered both as a filmmaker and as a martyr to American injustice and puritanism.

Culture Minister Fr?d?ric Mitterrand issued a statement saying he "profoundly regrets that a new ordeal is being inflicted on someone who has already known so many during his life."

Polanski also received support from Poland, where he moved as a toddler and avoided capture by the Nazis, who put his mother to death in a concentration camp. "I am considering approaching the American authorities over the possibility of the U.S. president proclaiming an act of clemency, which would settle the matter once and for all," said Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski, according to the PAP news agency.

The arrest baffled some in Hollywood. "I think it's absolutely ridiculous," said Bill Flicker, a film editor who once worked with Polanski in France. "It's stupid and a waste of resources. I don't understand why they are doing it."

After winning acclaim for his films in Poland, Polanski wowed Hollywood with "Rosemary's Baby" and "Chinatown." He won the Best Director Oscar in 2003 for "The Pianist," set during the Holocaust.

Among the director's supporters on the American side was his victim, Samantha Geimer, who was 13 when Polanski took her to bed during a photo shoot in the home of his friend Jack Nicholson. She said a decade ago that she felt no anger toward Polanski and most recently made her feelings known in "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired," a 2008 HBO documentary that made the case for dismissing charges against him.

If Polanski challenges the extradition, the process could drag on for months, according to officials. Neither his attorney nor prosecutors returned calls Sunday.

When Polanski fled the United States in 1978, the facts of the case against him were no longer in dispute. He had pleaded guilty to having sex with an underage girl, and in exchange for that admission, the district attorney had agreed that he should be sentenced to the 42 days he'd spent undergoing psychiatric evaluation in a state prison.

But the judge in the case, Laurence J. Rittenband, sent word that he would not honor the plea bargain and was inclined to send a stern message. Rather than face as much as 50 years in prison, Polanski skipped bail. The consensus of the prosecutor, the defense attorney, journalists and others was that the judge's decision was driven by his exceptional appetite for publicity.

From the start, the case has been tugged along the line where law enforcement and news media meet and exchange the vital gases that fuel sensation. Commuters passing City Hall in Santa Monica, Calif., are accustomed to seeing more than a dozen cameras staking out the latest court appearance of Lindsay Lohan or whatever celebrity has run afoul of traffic laws. It's as much a part of the hometown industry as catering trucks.

By the time Polanski met Geimer, whose mother, Susan Gailey, was dating one of his friends, Polanski's celebrity was already colored by one of the most notorious mass murders of the 1960s: His wife, actress Sharon Tate, was among those brutally slain by followers of Charles Mason.

The 1969 murder spree was revived in headlines Friday with news of the death, in a California prison, of Susan Atkins at age 61, of brain cancer.

Atkins was the follower of Manson who testified to ignoring the pleas of Tate, 8 1/2 months pregnant, and stabbing her to death in the home she shared with Polanski, where "pigs" was written in blood on the front door. Polanski was on location in London when Atkins and three others carried out the orders of Manson, who joined his followers the following night in killing Leno and Rosemary LaBianca in another neighborhood.

The creepiness and cultish nature of the slaughter was enhanced, both in news reports and the imagination, by images of "Rosemary's Baby," Polanski's hit from the year before, which starred Mia Farrow as a woman giving birth to Satan's child.

Geimer, who now lives in Hawaii, did not respond to requests for comment Sunday. But long ago she came to terms with the incident at Nicholson's home, where the 43-year-old Polanski plied her with champagne and gave her part of a quaalude while the director was doing a photo shoot with her for a French magazine.

"I don't carry any feelings of anger towards Polanski," she told People magazine in 1997. "I even have some sympathy for him, what with his mother dying in a concentration camp and then his wife Sharon Tate being murdered by Charles Manson's people and spending the last 20 years as a fugitive. Life was hard for him, just like it was for me.

"He did something really gross to me, but it was the media that ruined my life."

Flicker, who to got to know Polanski while working on the 1992 film "Bitter Moon," said the director "loved everything about the United States," adding, "He would jump at the chance to come back to the United States, but not under these circumstances."

Staff writer Richard Leiby in Washington contributed to this report.


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