LOS ANGELES – Danny Masterson, former star of the long-running sitcom “That ’70s Show,” is about to face three women in court who claim they raped them two decades ago in a trial whose key figures are all current or former members of the Church of Scientology.
Opening statements could begin as early as Tuesday in the 46-year-old Masterson’s Los Angeles trial, and while a judge has expressed his determination not to make the church the center of the proceedings, it will inevitably loom.
Masterson is accused of raping women between 2001 and 2003 in his home, which served as a community center when it was at the height of its fame. Masterson pleaded not guilty to the charges.
One of the women had been Masterson’s longtime girlfriend. Another was a longtime friend and the third a new acquaintance.
All three were members of the Church of Scientology, as Masterson still is. All three accusers have since left and have said that the church’s insistence that it deal internally with member issues initially made them hesitant to turn to the authorities.
“This is not going to become a Scientology trial,” Superior Court Justice Charlaine F. Olmedo said in a preliminary hearing. But she said she would allow her to discuss her as why the women delayed reporting to the authorities.
Testimony in a preliminary hearing last year to determine whether Masterson should go to trial last year included frequent use of Scientology jargon that lawyers had to ask witnesses to explain. And the list of witnesses from the trial is full of members and former members of the church, which has a strong presence in Los Angeles and has many famous people among its members. The list includes former member Lisa Marie Presley, daughter of Elvis Presley and ex-wife of Michael Jackson.
Masterson’s initial attorney in the case, Thomas Mesereau, pointed to his client’s Scientology connections, saying his arrest was the result of anti-religious bias by police and prosecutors. The lawyer tried unsuccessfully to sue alleged communications between the accusers and actor Leah Remini, a former Scientologist who became a major detractor of the church, author of a book and host of a series of documentaries.
Masterson’s lead attorney for the trial, Phillip Cohen, appears to be taking the opposite approach, seeking in a pre-trial motion to minimize mentions of the institute, which has garnered a lot of negative publicity in recent years due to prominent dissidents such as Remini. Some potential jurors were fired based on their views on the church.
“I think leaving the Church of Scientology out of it is a good plan,” said Emily D. Baker, a former Los Angeles County prosecutor who now works as a legal analyst and podcaster. “I don’t think the general public has an extremely positive view, I think there is a lot of skepticism.”
Deputy District Attorney Reinhold Mueller, the chief prosecutor, may also wish to proceed with caution on the matter.
“It can feel heavy when the government takes someone’s religion into a court case,” said Baker, who is not involved in the case. “I think there is a careful line to consider. The church is not on trial, they don’t want to give the jurors the feeling that they are being persecuted ”.
Masterson is charged with three counts of rape by force or fear, which could mean up to 45 years in prison if convicted.
At last year’s preliminary hearing, a woman testified that they had been in a relationship for five years when she woke up to Masterson raping her one night in 2001.
Another, a former friend of Masterson’s who was born in Scientology, testified that, in 2003, he took her upstairs from the hot tub of his Los Angeles home and raped her in her bedroom.
The third woman said Masterson raped her one night in 2003 after texting her to come to her home. She testified that she set boundaries and it was clear that she was not supposed to have sex.
One of the women, Masterson’s friend, displeased with the way the Scientology ethics committee handled her complaint about him, filed a police report in 2004 that was not indicted. In 2016, she connected and shared stories with the woman she says she was raped while she was having an affair with Masterson. Each would file a police report that year. Masterson’s ex-girlfriend said she did this after she told her story about her to her husband about her, which helped her realize she was raped. The third woman went to the police in 2017.
Masterson’s then attorneys suggested in their cross-examination of the women who all had retroactively reformulated consensual sex as rape and claimed that the age of the incidents made accurate memories impossible.
The Associated Press typically does not name people who claim to have been sexually abused unless they come forward publicly.
Masterson was one of the first Hollywood figures to be pursued in the #MeToo era. Her is one of many high-profile sexual assault cases that were tried around the fifth anniversary of the allegations against Hollywood tycoon Harvey Weinstein, who turned the #MeToo movement into an international showdown.
Weinstein’s second trial for rape and sexual assault – he’s already been sentenced in New York – is taking place at the same time, just down the hall from Masterson’s. Civil trials have begun in New York for actor Kevin Spacey and screenwriter and director Paul Haggis, both of whom have been reported for sexual assault.
Haggis is himself a Scientology dissident, and the judge in that case allows him to argue that the church is behind the charges against him.
From 1998 to 2006, Masterson starred as Steven Hyde in Fox’s “That ’70s Show”, which played Ashton Kutcher, Mila Kunis and Topher Grace and is getting an upcoming Netflix reboot with “That’ 90s Show”.
Masterson had reunited with Kutcher on the Netflix comedy “The Ranch,” but was canceled from the show when a LAPD investigation was revealed in December 2017.
Follow AP Entertainment writer Andrew Dalton on Twitter: https://twitter.com/andyjamesdalton