Danny Masterson, former star of the long-running sitcom “That ’70s Show,” is facing three women in court who say he raped them two decades ago at a trial whose key figures are all current or former members of the Church of Scientology.
Opening statements were read Tuesday in the Los Angeles trial of the 46-year-old Masterson. Deputy District Attorney Reinhold Mueller described alleged accounts of the women becoming woozy and passing out before regaining consciousness to find Masterson having sex with them.
And while Masterson’s defense attorney Phillip Cohen urged jurors not to consider the actor’s affiliation with Scientology and its relationship to the case, Mueller argued it could help explain why the women waited so long to report the incidents.
As the trial is underway, here’s everything to know:
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Who is Danny Masterson?
From 1998 until 2006, Masterson starred as Steven Hyde on Fox’s “That ’70s Show,” which made stars of Ashton Kutcher, Mila Kunis and Topher Grace and is getting an upcoming Netflix reboot with “That ’90s Show.”
The actor was one of the first Hollywood figures to be prosecuted in the #MeToo era. His is one of several high-profile sexual assault cases that have gone to trial around the fifth anniversary of the reporting of accusations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, which transformed the #MeToo movement into an international reckoning.
Weinstein’s second rape and sexual assault trial — he’s already been convicted in New York — is happening simultaneously, just down the hall from Masterson’s. In New York, civil trials have begun for actor Kevin Spacey and for screenwriter and director Paul Haggis, who are both being sued for sexual assault.
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What is Danny Masterson accused of?
Masterson is charged with three counts of rape by force or fear, which could mean up to 45 years in prison if if he’s convicted. The alleged incident took place with three women between 2001 and 2003 in his home, which functioned as a social hub 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. At last year’s preliminary hearing, she testified that they were five years into a relationship when she woke to Masterson raping her one night in 2001.
Another, a onetime friend of Masterson’s who had been born into Scientology, testified that, in 2003, he had taken her upstairs from the hot tub at his Los Angeles home and raped her in his bedroom.
The third woman said Masterson raped her on a night in 2003 after texting her to come to his house. She testified she had set boundaries and was clear there was to be no sex.
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 problems between members made them hesitant at first to go to authorities.
Masterson’s friend, unhappy with the way the Scientology ethics board handled her complaint about him, filed a police report in 2004 that didn’t result in charges. In 2016, she connected and shared stories with the woman who says she was raped while in a relationship with Masterson. Each 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 police in 2017.
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What role does Scientology have in the trial?
Testimony at 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 the witnesses to explain. And the trial’s witness list is full of members and former members of the church, which has a strong presence in Los Angeles and has counted many famous figures among its members.
“This is not going to become a trial on Scientology,” Superior Court Judge Charlaine F. Olmedo asserted at a pre-trial hearing. But she said she would allow its discussion as a reason why the women delayed reporting to authorities.
Masterson’s initial attorney in the case,Thomas Mesereau, emphasized his client’s Scientology connections, saying his arrest was the result of anti-religious bias from police and prosecutors. The lawyer attempted unsuccessfully to subpoena alleged communications between the accusers and actor Leah Remini, a former Scientologist who has become on of the church’s foremost detractors, authoring a book and hosting a documentary series.
Masterson’s lead attorney for the trial, Phillip Cohen, appears to be taking the opposite approach, seeking in a pretrial motion to minimize mentions of the institution, which has garnered much negative publicity in recent years because of prominent dissidents like Remini. Some potential jurors have been dismissed based on their opinions of the church.
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What is Scientology?
Author L. Ron Hubbard wrote “Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health” in 1950, which became a foundational text for the Church of Scientology. The religion focuses on bettering one’s spirit “not the mind or body —and believes that Man is far more than a product of his environment, or his genes,” according to its official website. Through processes called “auditing” and “training,” a Scientologist can gain better spiritual awareness outside of their body, the religion states.
The religion has garnered many celebrity figures such as Tom Cruise, Remini, Masterson, John Travolta and Kirstie Alley. Remini and Masterson’s former “That ’70s Show” co-star Laura Prepon are among the few famous people who have left the religion.
“The King of Queens” alum Remini was a member of the church for 35 years before leaving in 2013. Two years later, she said in an interview that Cruise was one of the factors that led her to leave — because the actor is so tethered to the church, they view an attack on him as an attack on all of them.
“He is very aware of the abuses that go on in Scientology,” Remini told The Daily Beast in 2018. “He’s been part of it.”
What famous faces are on the witness list?
The trial’s witness list is full of members and former members of the church, which has a strong presence in Los Angeles and has counted many famous figures among its members. The list includes former member Lisa Marie Presley, the daughter of Elvis Presley and former wife of Michael Jackson, a friend of one of the alleged victims.
Contributing: Andrew Dalton, The Associated Press, Maria Puente, Hannah Yasharoff, Naledi Ushe, USA TODAY