In Polanski's Case, Time Is On Nobody's Side

Film director Roman Polanski in September 2008. i i

Roman Polanski, photographed in September 2008 at a film festival in Germany. Roberto Pfeil/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Roberto Pfeil/AP
Film director Roman Polanski in September 2008.

Roman Polanski, photographed in September 2008 at a film festival in Germany.

Roberto Pfeil/AP

If you don't want him to snap at you, don't ask Steve Cooley, L.A.'s no-nonsense district attorney, why it took three decades to arrest film director Roman Polanski for forcing sex on a 13-year-old girl:

"He wouldn't surrender himself," Cooley says. "He fled the jurisdiction to avoid sentencing. He fled the jurisdiction! So, it took this long because he was a fugitive."

Polanski was arrested Sept. 26 in Switzerland after spending decades in France in the wake of the 1977 case. He is being held in Switzerland and faces the possibility of extradition to the United States. Meanwhile, Polanski's lawyers are reported to be debating the possibility that he might voluntarily return to appear in a California court.

If a fugitive returns to face punishment on his own, that's often taken under consideration, says former assistant district attorney Robin Sax:

"Usually, cooperation from a suspect is going to be beneficial to a suspect or defendant in a case," Sax says.

But in Polanski's case, the nature of his crime might have trumped everything else. Sax, who specialized in prosecuting sex crimes against children, says if Polanski had not plea-bargained his offenses down to one count — unlawful sex with a minor — he could have faced some serious jail time for the other counts on which he was indicted.

"There would have been a life sentence or a very serious punishment in this case," Sax insists. "I mean, here you have rape of an intoxicated person, sodomy of an intoxicated person, oral copulation of an intoxicated person. This isn't like one random, out-of-the-blue act that could have been misinterpreted."

And, says Sax, it wasn't an act that had been forgotten — even though it happened over 30 years ago.

"I do think as an individual DA, when you have a case that you are passionate about, there are certain people that you follow, and there are certain cases that become priorities," Sax says.

This would probably be one of them.

But how do you defend a 30-year-old case?

Defending Polanski now, Mark Geragos says, is going to be even harder than it would have been had he gone to trial in 1978.

Geragos is a nationally known defense lawyer who has represented several high-profile criminal defendants, such as Michael Jackson, former Rep. Gary Condit and singer Chris Brown.

"He's in a demonstrably different position than he was back in the '70s," Geragos says, assessing Polanski's case. "In the '70s, you didn't have 24-hour cable, you didn't have the blogosphere, you didn't have people up in arms. It was a different milieu, if you will, and I think it's going to be a very difficult process for him."

That said, Geragos says the DA should be more mindful of what Polanski's victim wants. Now 45, she has said repeatedly she's tired of the publicity and is ready to get on with her life. But he says in this case, the victim's wishes mean nothing.

"It's almost a schizophrenic thing on the part of the public," Geragos says. "On the one hand, the public is saying and voting into law constitutionally here in California that the victim's got a right to a voice in the process. Yet in this case, when she voices what she wants in the process, the people are saying, 'Well, we don't want to hear from her.' "

Given the circumstances, former prosecutor Sax says the 76-year-old Polanski is almost sure to serve some jail time if he comes back — but probably a lot less than he would have if he'd gone on trial three decades ago.

"That's what I see happening," Sax says. "I don't think that this is going to turn into years and years of litigation. I think everyone has too much to lose."

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