Thu, Jun 1, 2023 8:59 AM
By ANDREW DALTON, AP Entertainment Writer
LOS ANGELES (AP) — “That '70s Show” star Danny Masterson was led out in handcuffs from a Los Angeles courtroom Wednesday and could get 30 years to life in prison after a jury found him guilty on two of three counts of rape at his second trial, in which the Church of Scientology played a central role.
Masterson's wife, actor and model Bijou Phillips, gasped when the verdict was read and wept as he was taken into custody, while a group of family and friends who sat stone-faced behind him throughout both trials.
The jury of seven women and five men reached the verdict after deliberating for seven days spread over two weeks. They could not reach a verdict on the third count, that alleged Masterson raped a longtime girlfriend. They had voted 8-4 in favor of conviction.
Masterson, 47, will be held without bail until he is sentenced. No sentencing date was set.
“I am experiencing a complex array of emotions — relief, exhaustion, strength, sadness — knowing that my abuser, Danny Masterson, will face accountability for his criminal behavior,” 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.”
A spokesperson for Masterson declined to comment, but his attorneys will almost certainly appeal.
After a deadlocked jury led to a mistrial in December, prosecutors retried 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.
“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 Wednesday.
Masterson did not testify, and his lawyers called no witnesses. The defense 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.
“If you decide that a witness deliberately lied about something in this case,” defense attorney Philip Cohen told jurors, going through their instructions in his closing argument, “You should consider not believing anything that witness says.”
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.”
The church called the “testimony and descriptions of Scientology beliefs” during the trial “uniformly false.”
“The Church has no policy prohibiting or discouraging members from reporting criminal conduct of anyone — Scientologists or not — to law enforcement,” the statement said.
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 defense. The evidence involved links that the lawyer accidentally included in an email to Mueller.
The Associated Press does not typically name people who say they’ve been sexually abused.
Testimony in this case was graphic and emotional.
The two women whose testimony led to Masterson's conviction said that in 2003, he gave them drinks and that they then became woozy or passed out before he violently raped them.
The third, Masterson’s then-girlfriend of five years whose count left the jury deadlocked, said she awoke to find him raping her, and had to pull his hair to stop him.
Olmedo allowed prosecutors and accusers to say directly in the second trial that Masterson drugged the women, while only allowing the women to describe their condition in the first trial.
Masterson was not charged with any counts of drugging, and there was no toxicology evidence to back up the assertion.
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.
Masterson had reunited with Kutcher on the 2016 Netflix comedy “The Ranch,” but was written off the show when an LAPD investigation was revealed in December 2017.