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A jury found That ’70s Show star Danny Masterson guilty of two counts of rape in a retrial where Scientology played a key role.
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 eight-four in favour of conviction.
Masterson was led from the courtroom in handcuffs. The 47-year-old actor faces up to 30 years in prison.
His wife, actor and model Bijou Phillips, wept as he was led away. Other family and friends sat stone-faced.
Prosecutors, retrying Masterson after a deadlocked jury led to a mistrial in December, said he forcibly raped three women, including a longtime girlfriend, in his Hollywood Hills home between 2001 and 2003.
They told jurors he drugged the women’s drinks so he could rape them. They said he used his prominence in the church — where all three women were also members at the time — to avoid consequences for decades.
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.
“If you decide that a witness deliberately lied about something in this case,” defence lawyer 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.
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.
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. You have the opportunity to show them there is justice.”
The church vehemently denied having any policy that forbids members from going to secular authorities.
The Associated Press does not typically name people who say they’ve been sexually abused.
Two women, who knew Masterson from social circles in the church, said he gave them drinks and that they then became woozy or passed out before he violently raped them in 2003.
The third, Masterson’s then-girlfriend of five years, said she awoke to find him raping her, and had to pull his hair to stop him.
The issue of drugging also played a major role in the retrial. At the first, Olmedo only allowed prosecutors and accusers to describe their disorientation, and to imply that they were drugged. The second time, they were allowed to argue it directly, and the prosecution attempted to make it a major factor, to no avail.
“The defendant drugs his victims to gain control,” Deputy District Attorney Ariel Anson said in her closing argument. “He does this to take away his victims’ ability to consent.”
Masterson was not charged with any counts of drugging, and there is no toxicology evidence to back up the assertion. His lawyer asked for a mistrial over the issue’s inclusion. The motion was denied, but the issue is likely to be a major factor in any potential appeal.
These charges date 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.
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