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Decades Later, Rape Case Still Haunts Filmmaker Roman Polanski

In 1977, Roman Polanski was accused of raping a 13-year-old girl. Nearly 40 years later, he's still avoiding extradition to the U.S. for it.

KRAKOW, POLAND - OCTOBER 30: French-Polish film director Roman Polanski is seen during a press conference at the Bonarowski Palace Hotel on October 30, 2015 in Krakow, Poland. The District Court in Krakow has rejected a US request for the Oscar award winning director to be extradited. In 1977 Polanski was accused of six crimes, including the rape of a person under the influence of drugs and molestation of a minor. Polanski, pursuant to an agreement with prosecution, pleaded guilty to having sex with a minor, and the prosecution withdrew the rest of the remaining allegations. Polanski, as part of the agreed penalties, voluntarily went to prison and spent there 42 days on the so-called diagnostic Observation. (Photo by Adam Nurkiewicz/Getty Images)
KRAKOW, POLAND - OCTOBER 30: French-Polish film director Roman Polanski is seen during a press conference at the Bonarowski Palace Hotel on October 30, 2015 in Krakow, Poland. The District Court in Krakow has rejected a US request for the Oscar award winning director to be extradited. In 1977 Polanski was accused of six crimes, including the rape of a person under the influence of drugs and molestation of a minor. Polanski, pursuant to an agreement with prosecution, pleaded guilty to having sex with a minor, and the prosecution withdrew the rest of the remaining allegations. Polanski, as part of the agreed penalties, voluntarily went to prison and spent there 42 days on the so-called diagnostic Observation. (Photo by Adam Nurkiewicz/Getty Images)

In 1977, 13-year-old Samantha Geimer joined filmmaker Roman Polanski to go to what she thought would be a magazine photoshoot that could launch her modeling career and land her in French Vogue. Instead, Polanski brought her to his friend Jack Nicholson’s home in Hollywood Hills, where he allegedly drugged and raped her.  

Nearly 40 years later, the saga between Geimer and Polanski, who went on to win an Oscar for his 2002 film, The Pianist, is still not over. On Friday, the now 82-year-old escaped an American request for his extradition from Poland to the U.S., although prosecutors can still appeal the case.

As part of a plea deal, Polanski pled guilty to having sex with a minor. But in 1978, shortly before his sentencing, he fled to France, where he is a citizen, for fear that Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Laurence J. Rittenband would serve him a harsher prison term. At that point, Polanski had served only 42 days in jail, and figured he would be safe in France, which does not permit the extradition of its citizens.

Polanski is now in Poland, where he is also a citizen, to film a movie about the Dreyfus affair, the political scandal that rocked France in the late 1890s and early 1900s. Poland does allow for its citizens to be extradited under certain circumstances, and the the leader of the country’s newly elected Law and Justice party, Jarosław Kaczynski, had called for the Polish judge overseeing the case to consider handing Polanski over to American authorities.

But on Friday, Polish Judge Dariusz Mazur blocked Polanski’s extradition, saying it would breach the European human rights convention because he already served time in prison and admitted to the crime in the 1970s.

That might anger Kaczynski, who took a hardline approach to the Polanski case on the campaign trail.

“There was open talk that he should not be made responsible for his deeds because he is an outstanding, world-famous film-maker,” Kaczynski said. “We will totally reject this attitude.”

But the extradition Polanski has avoided for nearly half his life likely would have been widely unpopular in Poland. Many Poles consider the Oscar-winner who survived the Krakow ghetto, and whose mother was killed in the Auschwitz concentration camp, to be a national hero.

And Polanski’s lawyer, Jan Olszewski, claimed it’s beyond time for the U.S. to let the case go. “This is a European victory,” he said Friday. “The Americans breached seven or eight paragraphs of the European convention which, among other things, protects Europeans from being prosecuted twice for the same crime.’’

This is not the first time the U.S. has pushed for Polanski’s extradition. In 2009, American prosecutors called for his extradition from Switzerland, and he lived under house arrest in the Alps for months while Swiss authorities weighed whether to send him back to the United States.  In the end, Switzerland rejected the U.S. demands. On Friday, Mazur said that year of house arrest “counts as an added prison sentence.”

Meanwhile, in 2013, Geimer, who now has three sons, published the memoir The Girl: A Life in the Shadow of Roman Polanski, her account of the childhood rape and what followed.

She says she has forgiven Polanski, although she has admitted she has blocked out many memories from the year of court appearances and doctor’s appointments that took place between 1977 and 1978.

“I’m all right,” she told the Los Angeles Times after her memoir came out in 2013. “I was not all right the year after it happened … but I’m okay now. And when you start talking about 1977, there’s a lot of things that are funny.”

In 2009, after a documentary about the trial was released, Polanski reportedly wrote to Geimer to apologize. “I want you to know how sorry I am for having so affected your life,” he wrote.

And Geimer told the Guardian after her memoir was released that the events that took place that night in 1977 have in many ways tied the two together for life.

“We’re not buddies,” she said. “But, I mean, I have been in touch with him just a little bit by email. Just personal stuff, nothing worth talking about.”

Photo Credit: Adam Nurkiewicz/Getty Images

Siobhán O’Grady is a freelance journalist working across sub-Saharan Africa. She previously worked as a staff writer at Foreign Policy. @siobhan_ogrady

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