Ann Woolner writes for Bloomberg News.

 

Thirty-three years after he raped a 13-year-old girl in Los Angeles, Roman Polanski has been freed from his Swiss chalet. He had been held captive there at his part-time home, after his arrest in Zurich last fall, awaiting word on whether he would be sent to California to answer for his crime.

This week, Switzerland announced it was shielding the admitted child molester from extradition. This wasn't an easy conclusion for Switzerland; authorities had to ignore certain facts of the case, as well as the terms of a treaty with the United States.

That they did so speaks to their reverence for the filmmaker's enormous talent and his status among European intellectuals. But that wasn't the reason given when the Swiss justice ministry announced the decision. It said the United States had refused to hand over recent, sealed testimony by one of his original prosecutors, because judges in California had twice ordered it remain sealed.

Without the deposition, Switzerland couldn't be sufficiently certain whether Polanski had already served his sentence, the ministry said in its press release.

Sentence? What sentence? Polanski fled the country on the eve of sentencing with the clear purpose of avoiding it. That is a matter of public record.

But the Swiss wanted to know what the judge told lawyers he planned to do at sentencing and whether he had promised to let him go, as the defense claims. The testimony would have helped with that.

Were there problems with the original prosecution? There were. Are any allegations of mishandling hefty enough to wipe out Polanski's admitted guilt? Not a chance.

Besides, it isn't up to the Swiss to make that call. In effect, Switzerland decided that its view of justice in the case should prevail.

That isn't the way extradition is supposed to work. Except for political crimes, extradition is normally a routine matter. The hosting country makes sure they have the right guy and that the case fits within the terms of the treaty. There is little discretion.

At the time, Judge Laurence Rittenband said Polanski should be jailed for up to 90 days for a psychological evaluation. He reportedly told lawyers that if the assessment was favorable, which it was, Polanski would be free. But between then and formal sentencing, Rittenband had second thoughts. The evaluation took only 42 days, after which Polanski was let go.

It is true that his California victim, Samantha Geimer, says she wants the prosecution to drop the case. But the district attorney represents the state, not a single victim, and that means prosecuting sexual predators.

A California grand jury indicted Polanski on six charges in 1977, enough to send him away for decades. But, spooked by the publicity, his young victim declared she wanted no trial. So, a deal was struck.

The single charge he admitted, unlawful sex with a minor, carried a prison term of zero to 50 years. The defense says it was common then for defendants to spend little or no time in jail for it, shocking as that seems now.

The defense also says the judge intended to jail him for the 42 days, and makes it sound like that was the final sentence. It wasn't. But the claim gave the Swiss the fig leaf they were looking for to excuse their bogus rejection of extradition.

In fact, Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley says that Polanski voided his plea agreement when he fled. That means he can still be prosecuted on all the other charges, too.

Now Cooley or his successor will have to make that argument some other time, in some other venue - and only if Polanski ventures into a country more amenable to extradition.

I don't know where the 76-year-old Polanski is now, but yesterday was Bastille Day in France. I expect the Parisian was hoisting Champagne and celebrating his very own independence, as if his freedom were a victory for the common man over the powerful.

It was anything but that.