Who is Roman Polanski? Well, you might know him as a prolific filmmaker, the visionary behind Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Chinatown (1974), and The Pianist (2002). You might also know him as a convicted child rapist.
Last week, the Polish government announced its intentions to renew efforts to extradite Roman Polanski to the United States. Zbigniew Ziobro, Poland’s Minister of Justice, will file an appeal to revisit a U.S. extradition request that was rejected last fall. In October 2015, Judge Dariusz Mazur ruled that returning Polanski to the United States would be “obviously unlawful,” citing the 82-year-old director’s advanced age and expressing concerns for his physical welfare. If extradited, Roman Polanski would face charges relating to the 1977 rape of 13-year-old Samantha Gailey and a possible two-year prison sentence.
Here’s a refresher on the nearly 40-year controversy that’s surrounded Polanski—from his terrible crime, the convoluted legal proceedings that followed, and his eventual flight from the United States to become a fugitive in Europe.
Unlike many celebrity sex scandals—say, the allegations of molestation surrounding Woody Allen, or the Bill Cosby rape accusations made by nearly 60 women—the key facts in the Roman Polanski case aren’t up for debate. Roman Polanski had sex with a child, whom he’d plied with drugs and alcohol.
On March 10, 1977, the then 43-year-old Polanski (whose wife, actress Sharon Tate, was murdered by the Manson Family in 1969) picked up Gailey from her mother’s house in Los Angeles for a photo shoot. Polanski had first photographed the 13-year-old several weeks prior: He told the aspiring model that the pictures would appear in French Vogue, and she posed topless upon his request.
According to Gailey’s April 4, 1977 grand-jury testimony, Polanski drove her to Jack Nicholson’s house. The actor wasn’t home, but his ex-girlfriend Anjelica Huston was there when they arrived. Polanski poured Gailey champagne and they took more photographs. After they shared a quaalude, he instructed her to strip and enter a Jacuzzi, where—despite her protests—he soon joined her, after removing his own clothes. She lied about having asthma as an excuse to leave the hot tub. Although Gailey repeatedly told him “no” and asked him to drive her home, he proceeded to perform oral, vaginal, and anal sex on her inside the house. Gailey told the grand jury she was reluctant to resist because she was “afraid” of Polanski.
Gailey said Polanski asked her to keep their encounter a secret before taking her home, later telling her, “You know, when I first met you I promised myself I wouldn’t do anything like this with you.”
The legal proceedings
Polanski was arrested at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel on March 11, the next day, after Samantha’s mother called the police. On the 24th of that month, he was indicted on six felony counts, among them “furnishing a controlled substance to a minor” and “rape by use of drugs.”
Polanski initially plead not guilty to all charges, but eventually accepted a plea bargain—which Gailey’s attorney encouraged in the hopes of protecting his young client from the scrutiny of a public trial—in which five charges were dropped, leaving only the charge of unlawful sexual intercourse (statutory rape), the least serious of the original six.
Polanski’s was a so-called “open plea,” one that allowed the judge to decide his sentence. The plea agreement required Polanski to report for a 90-day psychiatric evaluation at Chino State Prison, but first, Judge Laurence J. Rittenband permitted the director to complete a film. During this stay, Polanski incurred the judge’s wrath when he was photographed at a beer hall in Munich, where it appeared that—according to Polanski, who complained that the image was misleading—he was “surrounded by a bunch of bimbos.” He served 42 days in Chino before he was released. The Probation Department and Gailey both recommended against jail time.
But before the sentencing took place, Judge Rittenband privately discussed his intention to renege on the agreement and send Polanski to prison for 48 more days, followed by voluntary deportation, with the defendant’s attorney. In a panic over the possibility of this harsher-than-expected sentence, the director fled the United States on February 1, 1978, the very day he would have appeared for his sentencing. He headed to London, then Paris, where he was shielded from extradition as a French citizen.
Judge Rittenband, who passed away in 1993, has emerged as a controversial figure. In the 2008 documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, David Wells claimed that—while serving as a Los Angeles deputy district attorney—he had privately encouraged Rittenband to toss Polanski’s plea agreement and that he had personally shown the judge the Munich “bimbos” photo in a newspaper. (Wells later recanted these statements.) In 2009, a California appeals court denied Polanski’s petition to dismiss his case on these grounds, although the panel expressed that they were “deeply concerned” about possible misconduct on Rittenband’s part.
It’s also worth noting that Samantha Gailey received pretty much exactly the treatment you’d expect a rape victim to endure in 1977. Judge Rittenband made this disconcertingly victim-blaming statement during Polanski’s plea colloquy:
The probation report discloses that although just short of her 14th birthday at the time of the offense, the prosecutrix was a well developed young girl who looked older than her years; and regrettably not unschooled in sexual matters. She has a 17-year-old boyfriend, with whom she had sexual intercourse at least twice prior to the offense involved. The probation report further reveals that the prosecutrix was not unfamiliar with the drug quaalude, she having experimented with it as early as her tenth or eleventh year.
As far as the U.S. government is concerned—because Polanski did not appear for his sentencing—all six original charges are still pending and his arrest warrant is outstanding. The case is not governed by a statute of limitations because Polanski already pleaded guilty. Polanski has long been the subject of an Interpol red notice, which the U.S. Department of Justice describes as an “international arrest warrant.” That doesn’t mean agents of the United States can swoop in and arrest Polanski whenever and wherever they’d like. Instead, they must work through diplomatic channels, within the boundaries of extradition treaties. The U.S. may submit a formal extradition request to a cooperative country when the fugitive enters its borders.
Polanski, a particularly beloved figure in France, has worked steadily throughout his exile. In 2003, he won the Best Director Oscar for the Holocaust drama The Pianist (Polanski is a Holocaust survivor), but declined to attend the Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles, because he would have faced arrest upon re-entering the United States. Among the Hollywood notables who signed a 2009 petition in support of Polanski are Tilda Swinton, Martin Scorsese, and (ahem) Woody Allen. That same year, Whoopi Goldberg notoriously remarked on The View that Polanski hadn’t committed “rape-rape.”
On his way to receive a lifetime achievement award at a film festival in September 2009, Polanski—who has resided primarily in France through the decades—was detained by Swiss police on the request of the United States at Zurich Airport. He was imprisoned for two months, then held in house arrest in his Swiss chalet from December 2009 to July 2010. The Swiss justice ministry ultimately freed Polanski after confidential testimony from his original sentencing was withheld by the U.S. government.
The recent application for Polanski’s extradition to the U.S. from Poland has coincided with the director shooting a movie based on the Dreyfus Affair in the country. Polanski has dual citizenship with France and Poland, where he grew up. NPR reports that Poland’s justice minister stated in last week’s appeal announcement that “the accused should be handed over to the United States.” Ziobro also said that Polanski’s celebrity status allowed him to enjoy special treatment from the lower court.
Samantha Gailey (now married and going by Samantha Geimer) filed a civil lawsuit against the director in 1988, and the terms of their settlement required Polanski to pay her $500,000 with interest. He was slow to pay this debt off and it’s unclear how much he may still owe her. Geimer—who published a memoir, The Girl: A Life in the Shadow of Roman Polanski, in 2013—has long expressed her desire to put the case behind her.
“Sometimes I feel like we both got a life sentence,” she wrote in a Los Angeles Times op-ed about Polanski’s Oscar nomination in 2003. Last year, she publicly supported the Polish court ruling that denied Polanski’s extradition. “I’m sure he’s a nice man and I know he has a family and I think he deserves closure and to be allowed to put this behind him,” she told NBC News.