January 21, 2009 / 1:57 AM / 10 years ago

California court puts Polanski sex case on hold

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A California appeals court on Tuesday put on hold a hearing sought by Roman Polanski, at the request of the fugitive filmmaker, as he tries to dismiss his 30-year-old conviction for having sex with a minor.

Director Roman Polanski is pictured during a news conference to present his musical 'Tanz der Vampire' ('Dance of the Vampires') in Oberhausen September 29, 2008. REUTERS/Ina Fassbender

Lawyers for Polanski, 75, asked the California 2nd District Court of Appeal for an emergency stay of the proceedings, which were set for Wednesday afternoon, while they seek to disqualify the entire Los Angeles County Court system from the case.

They are asking the appeals court to overturn a ruling by a Los Angeles Superior Court judge rejecting that motion, which would require the matter to be heard in another jurisdiction.

In granting the stay, the appeals court issued a terse, two-sentence ruling that did not explain the decision but directed prosecutors to file written arguments by January 30.

A spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, which has opposed any further hearings for Polanski as long as he remains a fugitive, said prosecutors would comply with that.

Polanski, the Oscar-winning director of such films as “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Chinatown,” fled the United States for France in 1978, before he could be sentenced for his guilty plea to having unlawful sex with an underage girl.

The filmmaker, who spent 42 days incarcerated for psychiatric evaluation, fled because he became convinced the judge intended to send him back to prison, contrary to a plea agreement he had made with prosecutors.

A citizen of his native France, Polanski cannot be extradited but faces arrest if he sets foot back on U.S. soil.

His bid to dismiss the matter stems from claims that the now-dead judge in the case was improperly coached by a deputy district attorney, David Wells, ahead of sentencing.

Those allegations gained public attention a year ago in the documentary “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired,” in which Wells spoke of his contact with the judge.

Polanski was originally indicted on six charges, including rape, for having sex with a 13-year-old girl after plying her with champagne and drugs. He insisted the sex was consensual but pleaded guilty to a single count of having sex with a minor, punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

Vilified in the U.S. media at the time, the director has earned a measure of sympathy in Hollywood and won an Academy Award in 2003 for directing the Holocaust drama “The Pianist.”

Editing by John O'Callaghan

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