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Polanski appeals extradition; supporters say he already has suffered for his crime

September 29, 2009 |  6:54 am

Lawyers for Roman Polanski filed papers in Swiss court appealing a Los Angeles arrest warrant as the firm director's representatives and backers said he already had suffered enough.

Los Angeles County prosecutors want Polanski to face sentencing over having unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl in 1977. The director pleaded guilty but fled the U.S. before sentencing -- living outside the U.S. for the last 30 years.

In a statement, the Swiss Federal Penal Court said the appeal would be reviewed in the "next few weeks." It did not provide further details. A spokesman told reporters that bail was possible but unlikely at this time.

Experts familiar with the Swiss justice system said it's likely Polanski would remain behind bars at least until the court ruled on his appeal.

Meanwhile, Polanski representatives stepped up their campaign to prevent extradition.

On ABC News, Polanski agent Jeff Berg said the director fled because he feared judicial misconduct and that justice had been served. "Roman was incarcerated. Roman did time in a state prison," he said. "My feeling to his critics is, you have to look at a much more complex situation surrounding this case." 

In an open letter, Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein called on "every U.S. filmmaker to lobby against any move to bring Polanski back to the U.S.," arguing that "whatever you think of the so-called crime, Polanski has served his time."

Sources have told The Times that Polanski's attorneys helped to provoke his arrest by complaining to an appellate court this summer that Los Angeles County prosecutors had made no real effort to capture the filmmaker in his three decades as a fugitive.

The accusation that the Los Angeles County district attorney's office was not serious about extraditing Polanski was a minor point in two lengthy July court filings by the director's attorneys.

But the charge caught the attention of prosecutors, who had made several attempts to apprehend Polanski over the years.

Swiss officials detained the 76-year-old Saturday as he arrived to accept a lifetime-achievement award at the Zurich Film Festival.

There have been persistent questions about why authorities arrested Polanski now given that the director has routinely traveled throughout Europe, including Switzerland, without incident. Based in Paris, he spent long stretches in Berlin and Prague filming movies, oversaw theater productions in Vienna and skied at his chalet in Gstaad.

"He's one of the most visible public figures in Europe. When he's doing an opera in Vienna -- where he's been on and off for the past 10 years -- it's in the news," Berg told The Times. "This is not the case of someone being one step ahead of the law."

But what appeared to set the trip apart was its wide publicity in the weeks after Polanski's lawyers  accused prosecutors of inaction.

Details of the festival, such as the timing of Polanski's red carpet stroll and acceptance speech, were readily available online, and movie industry publications had said he planned to attend, including a Daily Variety story in early August.

The month before, Polanski's attorneys filed two separate documents with the California 2nd District Court of Appeal asking for a dismissal of all charges against the filmmaker in the alleged assault of a 13-year-old girl.

In both filings, the lawyers alleged that the district attorney's office in effect benefited from Polanski's absence, because as long as he remained a fugitive, officials could avoid answering allegations of prosecutorial and judicial wrongdoing in the original handling of the case.

"The district attorney's office, in the 30 years since Mr. Polanski left the jurisdiction, has not once sought to have him extradited. If it had, there would have been a hearing regarding misconduct in this case," wrote the attorneys, Chad Hummel, Douglas Dalton and Bart Dalton, in a July 7 filing.

Twenty days later, they filed a second document and raised the issue again in a footnote. "Combined with the fact that no effort has been made to extradite Mr. Polanski, the intent here is clear: Invoke a physical absence which they caused and deliberately perpetuate in order to preserve the unconstitutional status quo and never address the misconduct head on," the lawyers wrote.

The sources, who are familiar with the prosecution's case but spoke on condition that they not be named because the case was open, said the statements prompted the district attorney's office to look anew for an opportunity to seize Polanski. His appearance in Switzerland, where a 1995 agreement allowed extradition to the United States, provided such a chance, the sources said.

A spokeswoman for the district attorney's office declined to comment on what role if any the court filings by Polanski's attorneys played in the arrest. But the office produced a list of eight instances since 1978 in which prosecutors took steps to apprehend Polanski.

"Those attempts were not successful. This attempt was," spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons said.

Some of the moves were bureaucratic -- the opening of a case file when authorities established that Polanski had taken up residence in France after his flight from L.A. in 1978. But most involved responding to reports of planned international trips by Polanski. Three months after the director became a fugitive, prosecutors learned that he was planning a trip to England and prepared an arrest warrant. It was unclear whether Polanski made the trip, but the warrant was never served.

In 1986, prosecutors consulted the Royal Canadian Mounted Police about a possible visit to Canada by Polanski, but the trip never materialized. In 1994, they told the Justice Department that they were still interested in pursuing Polanski and submitted an arrest warrant request to France. His French citizenship had long protected him from extradition, and it's unclear how French officials responded.

In 2005, Polanski traveled to Thailand and prosecutors alerted Interpol, but the director was not arrested. In 2007, prosecutors tried to arrange his arrest during a trip to Israel, but authorities there requested additional information, and the director left the country in the interim.

The final date on the list, Sept. 22, was the day prosecutors prepared the provisional warrant for Polanski's arrest en route to the film festival.

-- Harriet Ryan and Richard Winton