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Last-minute drama in Polanski's bid to have sex charges dropped

January 20, 2009 |  1:22 pm

Polanski With an international contingent of media gathering for Wednesday's hearing in Roman Polanski’s 1977 child-sex case, attorneys for the acclaimed filmmaker this afternoon made a second attempt to have the proceeding, a revisiting of one of Hollywood’s most dramatic legal sagas, removed from the jurisdiction of the Los Angeles Superior Court.

In an emergency writ filed with the 2nd District Court of Appeals, Polanski’s lawyers requested “an immediate stay of all proceedings in this case ... to prevent irreparable harm that will result from the continued participation” of Judge Peter Espinoza and the rest of the local bench.

Polanski’s lawyers -– although not the Academy Award winner himself –- are due in the courthouse Wednesday to ask that a 3-decade-old statutory rape charge be dismissed because of what they claim was egregious judicial and prosecutorial misconduct surrounding his 1978 sentencing.

The appellate court did not immediately rule on whether to take Polanski’s case. In their filing, attorneys for Polanski, the director of such films as “Chinatown” and “Rosemary’s Baby,” reiterated their claims that December statements by a court spokesman as well as the conduct of a judge involved in negotiations with the fugitive director a dozen years ago are evidence of bias against the defendant and cause to disqualify all of the court’s judges.

Espinoza, the supervising judge of the criminal division, refused to step aside, insisting in a written ruling that he was not prejudiced against Polanski and had an open mind about the issues raised by his lawyers. The district attorney’s office maintains Polanski must return to the United States, where he would face arrest, to make the request and has urged the judge to cancel the proceeding.

The 75-year-old director, who now lives in France, is grounding his request for a dismissal of charges largely in revelations contained in an HBO documentary broadcast this year, “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired.” In the documentary, David Wells, a deputy district attorney not directly involved in the case, acknowledged telling Judge Laurence Rittenband that Polanski was making him look foolish and that the judge should sentence him to prison.

Polanski spent a month and a half in prison for court-order psychological testing but fled the country after learning from his lawyers that Rittenband, now deceased, planned to sentence him to additional time behind bars. Both the victim, a 13-year-old girl who said Polanski raped and sodomized her during a photo shoot, and a probation official had recommended Polanski not be incarcerated. The victim, Samantha Geimer, now 45 and living in Hawaii with her husband and three children, has been an outspoken advocate for Polanski’s cause and condemned prosecutors last week for fighting the dismissal of the charges.

Reached at his home in Paso Robles, Wells, who is now retired, said he regretted participating in the documentary. “A lot of that stuff I said was just off the top of my head,” he said. Still, he said he was convinced Polanski’s request would be turned aside. “He has no standing. He’s not here. He’s a fugitive,” he said.

-- Harriet Ryan

Photo: Los Angeles Times