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Unsealed: Roman Polanski prosecutor thwarted in bid to disqualify judge in 1977

Unsealed testimony by the lead prosecutor in director Roman Polanski's rape case discloses that he was worried about the judge from early on.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — The lead prosecutor on Roman Polanski's rape case was prevented by his superiors from getting the judge in charge removed before a muddle over the sentence he was going to impose prompted the film director to flee the U.S.

Newly unsealed testimony by former Deputy District Attorney Roger Gunson revealed that he prepared an affidavit to disqualify Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Laurence Rittenband for prejudice in August 1977, around the time Polanski pleaded guilty to one count of unlawful sexual conduct with a 13-year-old girl.

Gunson testified that he was concerned Rittenband wouldn't be impartial because the judge had been discussing the case with members of the media and others not involved in the case. When he showed the affidavit with his concerns to his superiors at the LA County District Attorney's office, he said that they went to talk to Rittenband and that the judge confirmed it was true.

"One of them indicated to me that, even though Judge Rittenband had agreed with my information, in my affidavit, that the office was not going to file an affidavit, was not going to file the motion for disqualification," Gunson said.

His superiors didn't give him a reason why they weren't going a request to remove Ritttenband, according to Gunson. The former prosecutor also acknowledged he never told Polanski's lawyers about his misgivings about the judge and his attempt to disqualify him in the summer of 1977.

Gunson was questioned under oath in 2010 to preserve his testimony should a state court be willing to hear Polanski's allegations of judicial and prosecutorial misconduct in the case or to close it forever. The Oscar-winning director has been a fugitive since fleeing the U.S. in 1978 because he feared Rittenband was going to renege on his promise the previous year to sentence Polanski to time served in state prison where he was sent for a psychological evaluation.

This past week, the Los Angeles District Attorney dropped its opposition to unsealing Gunson's testimony.

Although the affidavit Gunson prepared in 1977 hasn't been found and he remembered none of the details in it, some of it had to do with another former prosecutor who had gone into private practice and who was friends with the judge, asking him for help to become Polanski's lawyer in the case.

"I laughed at him because it was the craziest statement I ever heard," Gunson said in the unsealed testimony. "He was asking me, a DA, to get him appointed to be the attorney for Mr. Polanski."

The request appears to have had a more sinister angle to it than Gunson could recall during deposition. Chad Hummel, Polanski's attorney during the testimony, showed him notes from the prosecutor who took over from Gunson on the Polanski case when he retired in 2002. According those notes from a meeting in 2002, Gunson briefed his successor on the events in 1977 when he wanted to get Rittenband off the case.

"Don Wager wanted to be defense attorney. He met with judge, blackmail to get on the case," the notes said according to the transcript, referring to the since deceased former prosecutor.

Gunson testified that he absolutely didn't know what that meant and that he no recollection whether Wager met with Rittenband, who is also no longer alive.

The former prosecutor had been interviewed for a 2008 documentary "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired" that detailed Polanski's arrest in March 1977 in the rape of a girl who had enlisted for a photoshoot at the LA home of actor Jack Nicholson, and its legal aftermath. At the request of the girl's family, who didn't want her to endure a criminal trial, Polanski was allowed to plead guilty to the least serious of the six charges he faced — unlawful sexual conduct.

Judge Rittenband, however, took matters in his own hands when the probation report recommended that Polanski shouldn't spend time in prison. The judge instead ordered him to undergo a 90-day psychological evaluation in state prison and indicated to the lawyers that that would be all the time Polanski would have to serve.

The judge also agreed Polanski could first finish up a movie he was making abroad, but instructed his lawyer that he would have to renew his request to stay his surrender every 90 days. That plan soon backfired when a Santa Monica paper published a photo of Polanski at the Octoberfest in Munich, drinking beer and smoking a cigar at a table surrounded by young women, rather than in Tahiti where he was supposed to be shooting the movie.

Polanski didn't get any further 90-day extensions to finish his movie but arrived at state prison for his evaluation in December 1977. He was released after just 42 days and again with a recommendation that no further prison that was warranted.

That didn't sit well with Judge Rittenband either, and he told Polanski's lawyers and Gunson that he would sent the director back to prison under a state law that allowed him to recall Polanski within 120 days, so that he would finish the remaining 48 days inside. Polanski fled before Rittenband could sentence him under those terms.

"It wasn't surprising to me that, when he was told he was going to be sent off to state prison and be recalled, that he could not or would not trust the judge in bringing him back within 120 days," Gunson testified. "I can understand why Mr. Polanski did not take the chance of going to state prison and not being recalled."

Both the defense lawyer and Gunson wanted to get Rittenband off the case because he was getting information from all kinds of sources and was being influenced by the press, Harland Braun, the lawyer who represented Polanski in his efforts to resolve the case following the 2008 documentary, said in an email.

"He promised Roman probation if he had a good probation report," Braun said. "The report was good but Rittenband was influenced by outsiders and broke his promise. He then promised Roman if he went for a diagnostic study the time at Chino would be his sentence. Rittenband broke his promise a second time and told the defense lawyer he was going to sentence Roman to 50 years but trust him he will get him out. He had 120 days only. Roman thought trusting Rittenband a third time was stupid so he went home to Paris."

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Categories / Courts, Criminal, Entertainment

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