LOS ANGELES (AP) — Danny Masterson, former star of the long-running sitcom “That ’70s Show,” is about to face three women in court who say he raped them two decades ago in a trial, the most important of which is figures all current or former members of the Church of Scientology.
Opening statements could begin as early as Tuesday in the Los Angeles trial of 46-year-old Masterson, and while a judge has expressed her determination not to let the church become the center of proceedings, it will inevitably get big.
Masterson is accused of raping the women between 2001 and 2003 in his home, which functioned as a social center when he was at the height of his fame. Masterson pleaded not guilty to the charges.
One of the women had been Masterson’s old girlfriend. Another was an old friend, and the third a newer acquaintance.
All three were members of the Church of Scientology, as Masterson still is. All three prosecutors have since left, and they said the Church’s insistence on addressing issues between members internally made them hesitant at first to go to authorities.
“This is not going to be a Scientology lawsuit,” Supreme Court Justice Charlaine F. Olmedo claimed during a hearing. But she said she would allow the discussion as one reason the women delayed reporting to authorities.
Testimony at a preliminary hearing last year to determine whether Masterson should appear in court last year included frequent use of Scientology jargon that lawyers had to ask the witnesses for explanations. And the witness list to the trial is full of members and former members of the Church, which has a strong presence in Los Angeles and counted many famous figures among its members. The list includes former member Lisa Marie Presley, the daughter of Elvis Presley and ex-wife of Michael Jackson.
Masterson’s lead attorney in the case, Thomas Mesereau, emphasized his client’s connections to Scientology and said his arrest was the result of anti-religious bias on the part of police and prosecutors. The lawyer unsuccessfully tried to subpoena alleged communications between the accusers and actor Leah Remini, a former Scientologist turned one of the Church’s biggest opponents, to write a book and host a documentary series.
Masterson’s lead attorney for the trial, Phillip Cohen, appears to be taking the opposite approach, seeking in a preliminary motion to minimize mentions of the institution, which has received much negative publicity in recent years from prominent dissidents such as Remini. Some potential jurors have been 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 attorney who now works as a legal analyst and podcaster. “I don’t think the general public has an overwhelmingly positive image. I think there’s a lot of skepticism.”
Deputy District Attorney Reinhold Mueller, the Chief Prosecutor, may also want to be cautious on the subject.
“It can be tough for the government to persecute someone’s religion,” said Baker, who is not involved in the case. “I think a careful line needs to be considered. The church is not on trial, you don’t want to make the jury feel like you’re going after it.”
Masterson is charged with three counts of rape with violence or fear, which could lead 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 was awakened by 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 out of the hot tub of his Los Angeles home and raped her in his bedroom.
The third woman said Masterson raped her one night in 2003 after texting her to come to his house. She testified that she had set boundaries and that it was clear that there should be no sex.
One of the women, a friend of Masterson, was dissatisfied with the way the Scientology Ethics Committee handled her complaint about him and filed a police report in 2004 that led to no charges. In 2016, she contacted and shared stories with the woman who claims to have been raped while dating Masterson. Each would report to the police that year. Masterson’s former girlfriend said she did so after telling her story to her husband, who helped her understand that she had been raped. The third woman went to the police in 2017.
In their cross-examination of the women, then-Masterson’s lawyers suggested they had all retroactively considered consensual sex rape, saying the age of the incidents made accurate memories impossible.
The Associated Press usually does not name names of people who claim to have been victims of sexual abuse unless they come forward publicly.
Masterson was one of the first Hollywood figures to be persecuted in the #MeToo era. He is one of several high-profile sexual assault cases to come to trial around the fifth anniversary of the reporting of allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, which turned the #MeToo movement into an international reckoning.
Weinstein’s second trial for rape and assault — he’s already been convicted in New York — takes place simultaneously, in Masterson’s hallway. Civil lawsuits have begun in New York against actor Kevin Spacey and screenwriter and director Paul Haggis, both of whom are facing charges of sexual assault.
Haggis is himself a dissident of Scientology and the judge in that case allows him to claim that the church is behind the charges against him.
From 1998 to 2006, Masterson played Steven Hyde in Fox’s “That ’70s Show,” which starred Ashton Kutcher, Mila Kunis, and Topher Grace and is getting an upcoming Netflix reboot with “That ’90s Show.”
Masterson was reunited with Kutcher in the Netflix comedy “The Ranch,” but was written off the show when an LAPD investigation was revealed in December 2017.
Follow AP Entertainment writer Andrew Dalton on Twitter: https://twitter.com/andyjamesdalton
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