Danny Masterson, the star of ‘That ‘70s Show’ has been found guilty of two counts of rape and could face up to 30 years in prison.
The American actor was led out of a Los Angeles courtroom on Wednesday after a jury found him guilty on two of three counts of rape during a trial in which the Church of Scientology played a main role.
After a deadlocked jury led to a mistrial in December, prosecutors retried 47-year-old Masterson, saying he drugged and forcibly raped three women in his Hollywood Hills home between 2001 and 2003. They said he used his prominence in the church - where all three women were also members at the time - to avoid consequences for decades.
The charges dated to a period when Masterson was at the height of his fame, starring from 1998 until 2006 as Steven Hyde on Fox’s ‘That ’70s Show’ - the show that made stars of Ashton Kutcher, Mila Kunis and Topher Grace.
“We want to express our gratitude to the three women who came forward and bravely shared their experiences,” Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón said in a statement after the verdict.
“I am experiencing a complex array of emotions - relief, exhaustion, strength, sadness - knowing that my abuser, Danny Masterson, will face accountability for his criminal behaviour,” one of the women, whom Masterson knew as a fellow member of the church and was convicted of raping at his home in 2003, said in a statement.
A second woman, a former girlfriend, whose count left the jury deadlocked, said in the statement: “While I’m encouraged that Danny Masterson will face some criminal punishment, I am devastated that he has dodged criminal accountability for his heinous conduct against me.”
Masterson did not testify, and his lawyers called no witnesses. The defence argued that the acts were consensual, and attempted to discredit the women’s stories by highlighting changes and inconsistencies over time, which they said showed signs of coordination between them.
Religion on trial
The Church of Scientology played a significant role in the first trial but arguably an even larger one in the second. Judge Charlaine F. Olmedo allowed expert testimony on church policy from a former official in Scientology leadership who has become a prominent opponent.
The church said in a statement after the verdict that the “introduction of religion into this trial was an unprecedented violation of the First Amendment and affects the due process rights of every American. The Church was not a party to this case and religion did not belong in this proceeding as Supreme Court precedent has maintained for centuries.”
Tensions ran high in the courtroom between current and former Scientologists, and even leaked into testimony, with the accusers saying on the stand that they felt intimidated by some members in the room.
Actor Leah Remini, a former member who has become the church’s highest-profile critic, sat in on the trial at times, putting her arm around one of the accusers to comfort her during closing arguments.
Remini said on Twitter that the two guilty verdicts in the retrial are “a relief. The women who survived Danny Masterson’s predation are heroes. For years, they and their families have faced vicious attacks and harassment from Scientology and Danny’s well-funded legal team," she posted. "Nevertheless, they soldiered on, determined to seek justice.”
The alleged harassment is the subject of a civil lawsuit filed by two of the accusers.
The Scientology statement said “there is not a scintilla of evidence supporting the scandalous allegations that the Church harassed the accusers.”
Founded in 1953 by L. Ron Hubbard, the Church of Scientology has many members who work in Hollywood. The judge kept limits on how much prosecutors could talk about the church, and primarily allowed it to explain why the women took so long to go to authorities.
The women testified that when they reported Masterson to church officials, they were told they were not raped, were put through ethics programs themselves, and were warned against going to law enforcement to report a member of such high standing.
“They were raped, they were punished for it, and they were retaliated against,” Deputy District Attorney Reinhold Mueller told jurors in his closing argument. “Scientology told them there’s no justice for them.”
Next week Olmedo will hold a hearing to determine how a lawyer who represents the Church of Scientology had evidence that the prosecution had shared with the defence. The evidence involved links that the lawyer accidentally included in an email to Mueller.