Despite the decades that have since passed, the volumes of court records entered on either side of the Atlantic, and incessant media speculation, the underlying facts of what transpired on March 10, 1977, at Jack Nicholson’s Los Angeles home remain largely undisputed. That was the day director Roman Polanski, then aged 44, photographed a 13-year-old girl named Samantha Gailey, fed her drugs and alcohol, then raped her.
Nearly 38 years have now passed. And Polanski, who pleaded guilty to statutory rape but fled before his sentencing, has the unique status of notorious fugitive and great artist. In the intervening years, Polanski has continued to direct widely-acclaimed movies — think “The Pianist” — while batting away every attempt to extradite him. And it now seems with every passing year it becomes less likely that Polanski, who just turned 81, will face justice for a crime for which he has never fully repented.
Thursday was another confusing day in the Polanski affair, again exposing the byzantine nature of international extradition as well as the power of celebrity in the face of such demands.
It’s not exactly clear what happened. But Polanski, who lives in France but has dual citizenship in Poland, arrived in Warsaw this week for the grand opening of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, where he glad-handed with the Polish president among others. This did not go unnoticed. Polish prosecutors soon interviewed the Polish-born director about his 1977 sex crime. But Polanski was quickly released.
According to local media, U.S. prosecutors had submitted a petition for Polansky’s detention after he arrived. But it wasn’t in Polish, so officials said they had no choice but to release him. “This was not a request for extradition, but for [Polanski’s] detainment, so that extradition proceedings can be initiated,” Polski Radio quoted one official saying. “For the time being, we won’t do anything, as the petition did not meet formal requirements, it is not translated into Polish, and that is required by international agreements. It will come to nothing, because the document will be amended, and in the meantime, Polanski will return to France — until next time.”
Until next time.
Meanwhile, CNN reported one of Polanski’s attorneys, Jan Olszewski, said authorities couldn’t hold him because there was no cause. “[The matter] was sent to the court that could impose a temporary arrest,” the attorney said. “The prosecution did not find basis for it.” A local spokesman added in an interview with Reuters: “The district prosecutor’s office in Krakow took the decision not to carry out a temporary arrest. The prosecutor also did not apply any other sanctions, such as barring him from leaving the country.”
So the Polanski case is back to where it has been for decades: The director is free to return to France but remains wanted in the United States. He’s been free all these years for a variety of reasons, as Jeffrey Toobin wrote in the New Yorker in 2004, including his celebrity, the murkiness of extradition procedures, varying cultural attitudes toward his crime and lackadaisical governmental effort to catch him, none of which are likely to change any time soon.
The Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office has always expressed outrage about Polanski’s situation, reported Toobin. “‘The case is about a 44-year-old defendant who plied a 13-year-old girl with drugs and alcohol, then against her consent, committed acts of oral copulation, sodomy and sexual intercourse upon her,’ attorneys once wrote in a brief. ‘Petitioner’s flight, whatever his motivations, and his failure to take responsibility for his crimes is at the heart of the extraordinary delays in this case.'”
But it’s more complicated than that, Toobin noted. “Over the years, the district attorney’s efforts to bring Polanski back to the United States seem to have been halfhearted,” the journalist found. “According to a chronology released by the D.A.’s office, prosecutors have made only a handful of significant gestures to international authorities, and there have been long gaps in even this effort.”
So Polanski was left to build a life in Paris, where he is revered, despite some very startling interviews in the early years as a fugitive. In 1979, he defended his rape of a child in an interview with novelist Martin Amis as something everyone wants to do.
“If I had killed somebody, it wouldn’t have had so much appeal to the press, you see?” the Telegraph quoted him saying. “But … f—ing, you see, and the young girls. Judges want to f— young girls. Juries want to f— young girls. Everyone wants to f— young girls!” Polanski later wrote in his book of girls “between sixteen and nineteen years old” who “took to visiting my chalet, not necessarily to make love — though some of them did — but to listen to rock music and sit around the fire and talk.”
Polanski has nonetheless succeeded in putting so much distance and time between him and the events of March 10, 1977, that there’s now little appetite for his prosecution in many countries he travels through — whether it’s Poland, France or Switzerland, where he escaped extradition in 2010. “I understand that people are shocked by the gravity of the accusations against Roman Polanski,” French President Nicolas Sarkozy told a reporter in 2009. “But I add that it is not a good administration of justice to do this 32 years after the facts when the person concerned is today 76 years old.” Producer Harvey Weinstein then described the admitted rape as a “so-called crime.”
The facts of the “so-called crime” are laid out in explicit detail in court records. And Polanski meanwhile has plans to stay in Poland for an extended period starting next year, Reuters reported. He will make the trip to film a movie and “show Poland, which they barely know, to my growing children,” he told Polish television. He added he hoped the issue of extradition in Poland was now behind him “once and for all.”