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Polanski hearing could bring new defense strategy

 Polish-born film director Roman Polanski awaits a public talk in Potsdam February 19, 2009. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke - Reuters
Polish-born film director Roman Polanski awaits a public talk in Potsdam February 19, 2009. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke
— image credit: Reuters

By Jill Serjeant

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Lawyers for fugitive director Roman Polanski return to a Los Angeles court on Wednesday and are expected to detail their next steps in a bid to resolve a 30-year-old sex charge against the Oscar-winning maker of "The Pianist".

The Los Angeles-based lawyers for Polanski declined on Tuesday to discuss their intentions, but the hearing, which was scheduled unexpectedly, follows a suggestion by a California appeals court last month that Polanski could ask to be sentenced in absentia on a 1977 charge of having unlawful sex with a 13 year-old.

Polanski, 76, is under house arrest in Switzerland fighting extradition to the United States. He fled the United States before sentencing in 1978, but after pleading guilty, and spent most of the past 30 years living and working in France.

A California appeals court in December denied Polanski's bid to have the unlawful sex case dismissed due to alleged judicial misconduct. But the court said the misconduct claims were "extremely serious" and an "in absentia" sentencing could help resolve what it called "one of the longest-running sagas" in the state's criminal justice history.

The Los Angeles District Attorney's office said Wednesday's hearing was requested by Polanski's lawyers, who first asked for a closed-door conference on an "undisclosed topic".

"We told the judge that we believed that any conference should be in open court. The judge agreed and scheduled the conference" for Wednesday, said district attorney's office spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons.

Loyola Law professor Laurie Levenson, who has closely followed the Polanski case, said the director's lawyers may be pondering a change in strategy.

"They may make a request for him to be sentenced in absentia. They may want to feel out the court to see what would happen if he came back. They may plan to petition the California Supreme Court," she said.

"This is a great game of chess with neither side knowing what the other side's next move is."

Levenson said the appeal court's suggestion of a sentencing hearing in Polanski's absence "is not the perfect solution for either side, but I think the court at least wants it to be something that is considered."

Judicial sources said such a request would likely have to come from Polanski himself and would result in a full-scale formal sentencing hearing in open court at a later date.

Swiss officials have said they will make a decision on extradition in early 2010. Under current California law, Polanski faces a maximum two years behind bars on his guilty plea, but his lawyers may likely argue for a lesser sentence.

Polanski is married and has two children. His other movies include "Rosemary's Baby" and "Chinatown", and his latest film "The Ghost Writer" will get its premiere at the Berlin Film Festival in February.

(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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