LOS ANGELES — Danny Masterson, former star of the long-running sitcom That ’70s Show, stands trial in front of three women who say he raped them two decades ago in a trial in which key figures are all current or former members of the Scientology Church.
Opening arguments could begin as early as Tuesday at 46-year-old Masterson’s trial in Los Angeles, and while a judge has expressed her determination not to place the church at the center of the proceedings, that will inevitably play a big part.
Masterson is accused of raping the women between 2001 and 2003 at his home, which acted as a social center when he was at the height of his fame. Masterson has 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 newer acquaintance.
All three were members of the Church of Scientology, as Masterson still is. All three accusers have since left, and they said the church’s insistence that it deal internally with issues between members made them initially reluctant to contact authorities.
“This will not be a lawsuit against Scientology,” Superior Court Judge Charlaine F. Olmedo said at a pretrial hearing. But she said she would allow the discussion as a reason why the women were delaying reporting to authorities.
Testimony at a preliminary hearing last year to determine whether Masterson should go to trial last year included frequent use of Scientology jargon for witnesses’ attorneys to explain. And the witness list at 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 former wife of Michael Jackson.
Masterson’s first attorney in the case, Thomas Mesereau, emphasized his client’s Scientology connections and said his arrest was the result of anti-religious bias on the part of police and prosecutors. The attorney tried unsuccessfully to subpoena alleged communications between the prosecutors and actress Leah Remini, a former Scientologist who has become one of the church’s leading critics, who is authoring a book and hosting a documentary series.
Masterson’s lead attorney for the trial, Phillip Cohen, appears to be taking the opposite approach, trying in a pre-trial motion to minimize mention of the institution, which has received much negative publicity in recent years over prominent dissidents like Remini. Some would-be jurors were dismissed for their opinions of the Church.
“I think leaving the Church of Scientology out is a good plan,” said Emily D. Baker, a former Los Angeles County prosecutor turned legal analyst and podcaster. “I don’t think the general public has an overwhelmingly positive opinion, I think there’s a lot of skepticism.”
Deputy public prosecutor Reinhold Müller, the senior public prosecutor, should also be careful with the subject.
“It can feel difficult when the government is prosecuting someone’s religion,” said Baker, who is not involved in the case. “I think there is a careful line to follow. The church is not on trial, you don’t want the jury to feel like you’re persecuting them.”
Masterson faces 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 awoke one night in 2001 to find Masterson raping her.
Another, a former friend of Masterson’s who was born into Scientology, testified that in 2003 he brought her upstairs from the hot tub at his Los Angeles home and raped her in his bedroom.
The third woman said Masterson raped her in a night in 2003 after texting her to come to his house. She testified that she had set boundaries and was clear that sex should not be allowed.
One of the women, Masterson’s friend, was dissatisfied with the way the Scientology Ethics Committee was handling her complaint against him and filed a police report in 2004, which resulted in no charges. In 2016, she connected and shared stories with the woman saying she was raped in a relationship with Masterson. Everyone would file a police report 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.
Masterson’s attorneys at the time, in their cross-examination of the women, suggested that all had retrospectively reformulated consensual sex as rape, saying the age of the incidents made accurate recollections impossible.
The Associated Press does not typically credit people who say they have been victims of sexual abuse unless they come forward publicly.
Masterson was one of the first Hollywood figures to be prosecuted in the #MeToo era. He is one of several high-profile sexual assault cases brought to court around the fifth anniversary of reporting allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein that turned the #MeToo movement into an international reckoning.
Weinstein’s second trial for rape and sexual assault – he was previously convicted in New York – is taking place at the same time, right next to Masterson’s. Civil trials have begun in New York against actor Kevin Spacey and screenwriter-director Paul Haggis, both of whom face sexual assault charges.
Haggis is himself a Scientology dissident, and the judge in this case allows him to argue that the church is behind the allegations against him.
From 1998 to 2006, Masterson starred as Steven Hyde on 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 had reunited with Kutcher in Netflix comedy The Ranch, but was written off the show when an LAPD investigation was uncovered in December 2017.
Follow AP Entertainment writer Andrew Dalton on Twitter: https://twitter.com/andyjamesdalton