Polanski lawyer seeks sentencing in absentia

Director is under house arrest in Switzerland

A lawyer for Roman Polanski asked a judge Wednesday to sentence the fugitive director in a 32-year-old sex case while he is under house arrest in Switzerland.

Defense attorney Chad Hummel presented a letter from the director asking to be sentenced without returning to the U.S.

The "Chinatown" director fled the U.S. in 1978 on the eve of sentencing after pleading guilty to one count of having sex with a 13-year-old girl.

Superior Court Judge Peter Espinoza accepted the letter but said he wants to see legal briefs that state why sentencing Polanski in absentia is appropriate.

"It seems to me there is a fairly big question about what his possible sentence could be," said Espinoza, who scheduled another hearing for Jan. 22.

The judge did not say if he would schedule an evidentiary hearing to determine whether there was misconduct by a judge or prosecutors during the 1970s proceedings.

A three-judge panel of the California 2nd District Court of Appeal said last month there was likely prosecutorial misconduct that should be investigated.

The panel also criticized Polanski for fleeing the country and refused to dismiss the case.

It did, however, suggest two legal options that could lead to his freedom now: file a motion to be sentenced in absentia, or drop his extradition fight, return to the United States and be sentenced in person, most likely not resulting in additional jail time.

But the court's strongest point was to urge that the case be concluded, calling it "one of the longest-running sagas in California criminal justice history."

Polanski's lawyer asked for a private conference in the judge's chambers, but a prosecutor prevailed in asking to make Wednesday's session public. Deputy District Attorney David Walgren said media presence would prevent misconceptions of what might be said behind closed doors.

He cited a history of "in chambers" conferences in the case that became controversial.

Polanski was accused of plying Samantha Geimer with champagne and part of a Quaalude pill then raping her during a modeling shoot at Jack Nicholson's house in 1977.

Polanski was initially indicted on six felony counts, including rape by use of drugs, child molesting and sodomy. He later pleaded guilty in a plea bargain to one count of unlawful sexual intercourse. He was sent to prison for a diagnostic study. The judge, who had promised no further jail time, reneged and was planning to sentence him more harshly.

Judge Espinoza said earlier this year there appeared to be "substantial misconduct," but Polanski had to return to the United States to argue for the case to be tossed out.

Polanski has refused to return and is fighting extradition from Switzerland, where he was arrested in September when he arrived for a film festival.

Prosecutors said Polanski is subject to a sentence of two years; the defense says he already served a sentence handed down by the original judge in the case plus five months spent in a Swiss jail and more recently under house arrest.

In its opinion last month, the appellate court panel said it believes the trial court could issue a sentence that does not require any further incarceration.