GSTAAD, Switzerland — In a stunning ruling, Roman Polanski was declared a free man on Monday – no longer confined to house arrest in his Alpine villa after Swiss authorities rejected a U.S. request for his extradition because of a 32-year-old sex conviction.
The decision left the Oscar-winning director free to return to France and the life of a celebrity, albeit one unable to visit the United States.
Hours after the ruling was announced, Polanski's assistant said he had left his multimillion-dollar chalet with his family. Half-empty glasses seen on a back porch testified to a hasty exit.
"Mr. Polanski can now move freely," Swiss Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf declared. "He's a free man."
Switzerland, which arrested the 76-year-old Polanski last September as he arrived receive a lifetime achievement award at a Zurich film festival, blamed U.S. authorities for its decision, citing a possible "fault in the U.S. extradition request."
The United States failed to provide confidential testimony to refute defense arguments the filmmaker had actually served his sentence before fleeing Los Angeles three decades ago, Widmer-Schlumpf said.
The Swiss decision for now ends the United States' long pursuit of Polanski, who has been a fugitive since fleeing sentencing for having sex in 1977 with a 13-year-old girl. But Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley said his office will try again to have Polanski extradited if he is arrested in another country with a favorable extradition treaty.
Beyond the legal issue, the extradition request was complicated and diplomatically sensitive because of 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 Sharon Tate was murdered in 1969 by followers of cult leader Charles Manson in California.
France, where the filmmaker has spent much of his time, does not extradite its own citizens and Polanski has had little trouble traveling throughout Europe – although he has stayed away from Britain.
The U.S. cannot appeal the decision, but Polanski is still a fugitive in the United States.
"That warrant remains outstanding," Los Angeles Superior Court spokesman Allan Parachini said, adding that Polanski could be arrested and sent to the U.S. if he traveled to another country that has an extradition treaty with the United States.
In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the Obama administration was disappointed by the Swiss action. "The United States believes that the rape of a 13-year-old child by an adult is a crime, and we continue to pursue justice in this case," Crowley said.
In Los Angeles, Cooley, who is running for state attorney general, called the decision a "disservice to justice and other victims as a whole." He accused the Swiss of using the issue of the confidential testimony as an excuse to set Polanski free.
"To justify their finding to deny extradition on an issue that is unique to California law regarding conditional examination of a potentially unavailable witness is a rejection of the competency of the California courts," Cooley said. "The Swiss could not have found a smaller hook on which to hang their hat."
A top Justice Department official said the U.S. extradition request was completely supported by treaty, facts and the law. The department is "deeply disappointed" by the Swiss rejection and will review its options, said Lanny Breuer, assistant attorney general in charge of the department's criminal division.
The decision drew cheers and jeers on both sides of the Atlantic.
"The great Franco-Polish director can now freely rediscover his loved ones and devote himself fully to the pursuit of his artistic activities," said French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner.
His Polish counterpart Radek Sikorski expressed satisfaction with the Swiss decision, saying that "a solution was found that respects the complex legal considerations and personal circumstances of the case of Mr. Polanski."
At Polanski's multi-million dollar Alpine chalet the shutters were open but there was no sign of movement inside hours after the Swiss decision was announced.
A woman who answered the intercom and identified herself only as "Mr. Polanski's assistant" said the director had left with his wife and two young children, Morgane and Elvis. She declined to say where Polanski had gone or whether he would return.
Glasses stood half-empty glasses on the porch, where neighbors say Polanski was having a meal around noon.
Asked whether Polanski had left the home after being freed Monday from the electronic tags that monitored his movements during his house arrest on $4.5 million bail, a police spokeswoman, Ursula Stauffer, said: "Mr. Polanski is a free man. It's not the job of the police to keep track of his movements."
Widmer-Schlumpf, the Swiss justice minister, said the decision was not meant to excuse Polanski's crime, adding the issue was "not about deciding whether he is guilty or not guilty."
The government said extradition had to be rejected "considering the persisting doubts concerning the presentation of the facts of the case."
In justifying the decision, Switzerland also invoked what it called the "public order" – a lofty notion meaning that governments should ensure their citizens are safe from arbitrary abuse of the law.
The Justice Ministry cited the fact that U.S. authorities hadn't pursued Polanski in Switzerland previously, even though he's often visited the country and bought a house here in 2006. It also stressed that the victim, Samantha Geimer, who long ago publicly identified herself, has joined in Polanski's bid for dismissal.
The acclaimed director of "Rosemary's Baby," "Chinatown" and "The Pianist" was accused of plying his victim with champagne and part of a Quaalude during a 1977 modeling shoot and raping her. He was initially indicted on six felony counts, including rape by use of drugs, child molesting and sodomy, but pleaded guilty to one count of unlawful sexual intercourse.
In exchange, the judge agreed to drop the remaining charges and sentence him to prison for a 90-day psychiatric evaluation. However, he was released after 42 days by an evaluator who deemed him mentally sound and unlikely to offend again.
The judge responded by saying he was going to send Polanski back to jail for the remainder of the 90 days and that afterward he would ask Polanski to agree to a "voluntary deportation." Polanski then fled the country on the eve of his Feb. 1, 1978, sentencing.
The office of Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley did not issue any statement about the Swiss decision and he did not return a message seeking comment.
Reaction was varied among Los Angeles' legal community, ranging from those who saw the Swiss decision as a slap in the face to others who thought the efforts by Cooley's office to prosecute Polanski were too late.
"Polanski got away with a lot, but it's not all black and white," said Loyola Law School professor Stan Goldman. "I don't see the D.A. rushing to investigate the very palpable evidence of misconduct in the original case. And the victim said they were hurting her every time they brought this up. So there are many shades of gray."
University of Southern California Law School professor Jean Rosenbluth said that while extradition requests are overwhelmingly approved, the Polanski case presented several difficult issues.
The Swiss had wide latitude to make a decision, and there were a variety of competing interests, said Rosenbluth, a former federal prosecutor who has handled extradition cases.
"In my opinion they wanted to release him and looked for some grounds to support the release," defense attorney Thomas Mesereau Jr. said. "It's a clear affront to the United States and the Los Angeles County District Attorney."
Klapper reported from Geneva. Associated Press writers Angela Charlton in Paris, Pete Yost and Robert Burns in Washington, Entertainment writers Anthony McCartney and Sandy Cohen and Special Correspondent Linda Deutsch in Los Angeles contributed to this report.