GENEVA — Roman Polanski's loss of a crucial California court decision sets up his return to the United States more than three decades after he fled a statutory rape charge, Swiss legal experts said Friday.
However, they predicted months of further legal wrangling before extradition.
Caught up in the complexity and political sensitivity of the case, Switzerland has yet to issue a decision on delivering the fugitive Oscar-winning filmmaker to Los Angeles prosecutors nearly seven months after his arrest.
Swiss authorities have cited the voluminous paperwork and said they would wait out a California court's examination of whether Polanski could be sentenced in absentia for having sex in 1977 with a 13-year-old girl.
But the U.S. court rejected Polanski's sentencing request Thursday without an opinion. While his attorneys could still appeal to the California Supreme Court, legal experts saw little basis for Swiss authorities to reject handing over Polanski.
"Extradition is likely now," said Dieter Jann, a former Zurich prosecutor. "Not much has changed, and Switzerland has a legal obligation here."
The Swiss Justice Ministry said Friday it wouldn't rush a decision since it still must receive and study the ruling by the California 2nd District Court of Appeal. Polanski's lawyers have argued he shouldn't have to be present to be sentenced on one count of unlawful sexual intercourse, saying he should be let off with time served.
Polanski's American attorneys have not outlined their next step. On Friday, Polanski's longtime attorney, Douglas Dalton, issued a brief statement.
"The Court of Appeal decision yesterday did not decide the question of extradition," he said. "The formal U.S. extradition request unquestionably contains a false sworn statement by Los Angeles prosecutors about Mr. Polanski's punishment which we have asked the United States Department of Justice and the Swiss authorities to investigate. The DA's Office has known the true facts for over 30 years."
They were referring to a statement by Deputy District Attorney David Walgren in extradition papers submitted to the Swiss. Walgren stated that when the original trial judge sent Polanski to prison for a 90-day "diagnostic evaluation" in 1977, Superior Court Judge Laurence J. Rittenband "told the parties, including Mr. Polanski" that it would put the judge "in a better position to reach a fair and just decision as to the sentence that he would finally and eventually impose..."
But the lawyers have said in court that was incorrect because all the parties knew the judge promised during a meeting in chambers that the 90-day study would constitute Polanski's entire sentence.
When he was released after 42 days, attorneys say the judge reneged and wanted to impose a longer term and require Polanski to deport himself.
Informed of the defense statement, district attorney's spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons said her office would not comment while the extradition matter is pending in Switzerland.
Asked whether the director of "Rosemary's Baby," "Chinatown" and "The Pianist" would continue to fight extradition, his French lawyer Herve Temime said, "I think so," but declined to answer specific questions.
The Swiss arrested Polanski on Sept. 26 on a U.S. warrant as he arrived in Zurich to receive a lifetime achievement award from a film festival. The Swiss imprisoned him for over two months before moving him to house arrest on $4.5 million bail at his chalet in the luxury resort of Gstaad.
Swiss Justice Ministry spokesman Folco Galli urged patience.
"We can't make a decision based on media reports. We have to study the ruling," he told The Associated Press. He declined to say in which direction Swiss authorities were leaning but said "if it was obvious that he couldn't be extradited, we wouldn't have arrested him."
If the Swiss government ultimately approves extradition, Polanski could still lodge court appeals in Switzerland that would delay his return to the United States for months.
Peter Cosandey, another former Swiss prosecutor, said he expected a government decision soon, and that the extradition would likely be approved.
"Extradition is a rather formal procedure, and we look to see if the formalities are met," he said. "I don't see many real arguments against. Statute of limitations won't work in the U.S., and he can't say he wasn't there."
Still, sending Polanski back to the U.S. is a complicated and diplomatically sensitive decision for the Swiss, as it deals with a 33-year-old case that includes accusations of wrongdoing by a now-deceased Los Angeles judge, a confused sentencing procedure, the director's own flight from justice and the wishes of the victim – Samantha Geimer – who has asked that the case be dismissed.
There is also Polanski's status as a cultural icon in France and Poland, where he holds dual citizenship, and his history as a Holocaust survivor whose first wife was brutally murdered by crazed followers of cult leader Charles Manson in California.
Cosandey said Polanski's extradition should remain a decision for justice authorities, even if there was some political grumbling in Switzerland. Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey, for example, has noted a "lack of finesse" in how the arrest was handled.
"There might be discussions behind the scenes, but even lawyers not involved in the case are watching what's going on," Cosandey said. "It won't be an obviously ridiculous decision."
In the U.S., Polanski's attorneys have focused on numerous instances of apparent misconduct in the 1970s case by the judge, and two California courts have agreed without ordering an evidentiary hearing that could resolve the matter.
While the attorneys may try a similar approach in Switzerland, it seems unlikely that the Swiss government or appeals court would venture to rule on U.S. judicial misconduct.
"These are all arguments for the competent courts" in the United States, Cosandey said.
Still, the case could be delayed for several months if it climbs all the way to the Swiss Supreme Court, which intervenes on "especially important" extradition disputes.
Polanski was initially accused of raping the girl after plying her with champagne and a Quaalude pill during a 1977 modeling shoot. He was indicted on six felony counts, including rape by use of drugs, child molestation and sodomy, but he pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of unlawful sexual intercourse.
In exchange, the judge agreed to drop the remaining charges and sent him to prison for a 90-day psychiatric evaluation. The evaluator released Polanski after 42 days, but the judge said he was going to send him back to serve out the remaining time.
Polanski then fled the U.S. on Feb. 1, 1978, the day he was to be formally sentenced. He has lived since in France, which does not extradite its citizens.
U.S. prosecutors now say Polanski could face up to two years – and not 48 more days – in prison. The time length is important, because Switzerland cannot extradite him unless he faces a sentence longer than six months.
Swiss officials say final decisions on extradition are usually reached within a year of a person's arrest.
It would be up to Los Angeles authorities to decide if Polanski's prison time and house arrest can be deducted from the sentence he would have to serve in the United States.
AP Special Correspondent Linda Deutsch in Los Angeles contributed to this report.