The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office is no longer opposing a request to unseal a former prosecutor’s testimony that Roman Polanski claims will reveal misconduct from a judge, thus warranting dismissal of the decades-old case against him.
Los Angeles prosecutors on Tuesday lifted their opposition to unseal transcripts of closed-door testimony from the original prosecutor handling the case, Roger Gunson, who retired in 2002. District Attorney George Gascón told The Hollywood Reporter there were “some irregularities” in the case, starting with potential “judicial misconduct” from the judge who initially oversaw the proceedings.
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A ruling unsealing the testimony could lead to Polanski being allowed to return to the United States without serving prison time for his underlying criminal case if it’s found that the court improperly reneged on the plea deal he painstakingly struck with prosecutors for 90 days of psychiatric evaluation. He may face time in prison for fleeing the country.
The 45-year-old case has a complicated history, at the center of which have long been allegations of prosecutorial and judicial misconduct.
Polanski was arrested in 1977 for raping Samantha Geimer, then 13 years old. He accepted a plea agreement to dismiss five of the more serious charges — including rape by use of drugs — in exchange for pleading guilty to engaging in unlawful sex with a minor. His lawyers his expected him not to serve any time in prison and get probation.
Under the terms of the plea agreement, Polanski was allowed to travel to Europe to complete filming on a project. He fled to France after he learned that Judge Laurence Rittenband, who initially handled the case in the 1970s and died in 1993, was going to go back on the deal and instead put him behind bars for up to 50 years, according to a court filing counting the case. Polanski has claimed that the judge was unduly influenced by a prosecutor, the press and fear of public backlash for handing him a lenient sentence.
The court has consistently refused to unseal Gunson’s testimony. Judges have pointed to the larger issues at stake in the criminal justice system and the precedent it would set if the case against Polanski, a fugitive from justice, is dismissed. The newest request to open Gunson’s testimony came from independent journalists Sam Wasson and William Rempel, who say their intent is to scrutinize the integrity of the courts.
In a letter to an appeals court filed on Tuesday, Gascón’s office claimed unsealing Gunson’s deposition is “in the interest of justice.” While Gascón initially opposed doing so because it appeared as if Polanski was trying to game the courts, he acknowledged that the petitioners in this instance are journalists with different interests than Polanski.
“As this Court also noted, prosecutors have a broader role in the criminal justice system as guardians of systematic integrity,” reads the filing. “The Polanski case has tested the judicial system, and the combinations of interests that the People must consider during the prosecution of a case.”
The Polanski case is one of the longest-running cases in state criminal justice history. Gascon argued that sealing should not be allowed to stand forever, especially since sealing procedures are intended to protect vulnerable witnesses. Those concerns, he said, no longer exist in this case. He also emphasized that the public has a right to know and scrutinize painstaking misconduct by judges and prosecutors.
According to Gascón, a plea agreement between Polanski and prosecutors might have been breached. He claimed that there was a “backtracking of the original” deal.
“He had already served a period of time,” Gascon said. “As I remember, the agreement said that would be the maximum time he’d serve for the conduct.”
Diana Teran, director of prosecution support operations, noted that “a lot of negotiations occurred off-the-record before the judge.”
When the DA’s office was still opposed to the move, it argued there was no First Amendment right to disclosure because the testimony was not used to decide Polanski’s underlying case. Gascón said he changed the office’s position once he was told by Teran that there might have been judicial and prosecutorial misconduct. If there was wrongdoing by prosecutors, he said he would launch an investigation and be “aggressive through our own process.”
Neither the district attorney’s office nor Polanski knows what Gunson said during his deposition.
Allegations of wrongdoing from judges and prosecutors surfaced as a result of 2008 documentary Roman Polanksi: Wanted and Desired. In the film, director Marina Zenovich explored potentially improper contact between Rittenband and a deputy district attorney, which led to Polanski moving to dismiss the case. His lawyers argued that the deputy, David Wells, was independently advising the judge on how to approach the case. Wells said in the documentary that he was “privy to almost everything that went on” and described having counseled the judge on sentencing. He recalled Rittenband saying to him, “Look, I don’t know anything about criminal law, don’t want to know. Just don’t get me reversed on appeal. You do whatever you want to do, just don’t get me reversed.”
In 2014, internal court emails obtained by The New York Times over its response to the documentary also implicated misconduct by other judicial officers. In one message, Judge Larry P. Fidler said he would have no choice but to dismiss the case against Polanski. He expressed fear of public backlash. “Since the law was on his side his because of Rittenband ‘s conduct, I was convinced I was toast if he ever came back, and my career would be over,” Fidler wrote to the court ‘s public information officer in June 9, 2008.
A state appeals court that considered whether to unseal Gunson’s testimony in 2010 said it is “deeply concerned that allegations of misconduct have not been addressed by a court.” The Second Appellate District panel wrote that, “Fundamental fairness and justice in our criminal justice system are far more important than the conviction and sentence of any one individual.”
Geimer has supported unsealing the testimony to resolve the long-running case.
“Our justice system demands that all who are accused, charged, or convicted of a crime must be treated fairly and their rights respected fully,” she told THR. “The release of this testimony is a long-overdue step in that direction. Justice must strive to find the truth in all cases.”
Asked about Polanski’s potential sentencing, she replied, “I’d have him sentenced to time served, which is what should’ve been done and what was promised to him originally.”
Representatives for Polanski, Los Angeles Superior Court and Bart Dalton, a lawyer representing the director, did not respond to requests for comment. Wells, now retired, could not be reached for comment.
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