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Los Angeles (AP) — Danny Masterson, the former star of the long-running sitcom “That ’70s Show,” is about to go to court to face three women who say he raped them 20 years ago. The key figures in the trial are all current or former members of the Church of Scientology.
Masterson’s trial in Los Angeles could start with opening statements as early as Tuesday. The judge has said she doesn’t want the church to be the main focus of the trial, but it will still be a big part of it.
Masterson is accused of raping women in his home, which was a gathering place when he was at the height of his fame, between 2001 and 2003. Masterson has said that he is not guilty.
Masterson had been with one of the women for a long time. One was a longtime friend, and the other two were people they had just met.
Masterson is still a member of the Church of Scientology, as were the other three. Since then, all three accusers have left, and they said that the church’s insistence that problems between members be handled internally made them hesitant to go to the police at first.
At a hearing before the trial, Superior Court Judge Charlaine F. Olmedo said, “This is not going to turn into a trial about Scientology.” But she said it could be talked about as a reason why the women didn’t go to the police sooner.
At a preliminary hearing last year to decide if Masterson should go to trial, witnesses often used Scientology jargon that the lawyers had to ask them to explain.
And there are a lot of current and former members of the church on the list of witnesses. The church has a strong presence in Los Angeles and has had many famous people as members. Lisa Marie Presley, who used to be a member but is no longer, is on the list. She is the daughter of Elvis Presley and the ex-wife of Michael Jackson.
Masterson’s first lawyer, Thomas Mesereau, focused on his client’s ties to Scientology and said that he was arrested because police and prosecutors were biased against religion. The lawyer tried to get a subpoena for alleged conversations between the accusers and actor Leah Remini, a former Scientologist who has become one of the church’s biggest critics by writing a book and hosting a documentary series. He was not successful.
Phillip Cohen, Masterson’s main trial lawyer, seems to be taking the opposite approach. In a pre-trial motion, he asked that the institution, which has gotten a lot of bad press in recent years because of prominent dissidents like Remini, be mentioned as little as possible. Some people who could have been jurors were not chosen because of how they felt about the church.
“I think it’s a good idea to leave the Church of Scientology out of it,” said Emily D. Baker, who used to be a prosecutor in Los Angeles County and now works as a legal analyst and podcaster. “I don’t think most people have a very positive view of it. I think there is a lot of skepticism.”
Even the main prosecutor, Deputy District Attorney Reinhold Mueller, might want to be careful about what he says about the case.
“It can feel heavy-handed when the government uses someone’s religion as part of a prosecution.” “I think it’s important to walk a fine line. You don’t want the jury to think you’re going after the church when it’s not on trial.”
Masterson has been charged with three counts of rape by force or fear. If he is found guilty, he could spend up to 45 years in prison.
At the preliminary hearing last year, one woman said that Masterson raped her one night in 2001 when they had been together for five years.
Another witness, a former friend of Masterson’s who was born into Scientology, said that in 2003, he took her from his Los Angeles hot tub to his bedroom and raped her there.
The third woman said that Masterson raped her after texting her to come to his house one night in 2003. She said that she had set limits and made it clear that there would be no sex.
One of the women, Masterson’s friend, wasn’t happy with how the Scientology ethics board dealt with her complaint about him, so she went to the police in 2004. However, no charges were brought against Masterson. In 2016, she got in touch with the woman who says Masterson raped her while they were together. They talked and shared stories. Each would file a police report in that year. Masterson’s ex-girlfriend said she broke up with him after telling her husband what happened. Her husband helped her realize she had been raped. In 2017, the third woman went to the police.
Masterson’s lawyers at the time suggested in their cross-examination of the women that all of them had reframed consensual sex as rape after the fact. They said this was impossible because the events happened so long ago.
People who say they were sexually abused are usually not named by the Associated Press unless they come forward in public.
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