LOS ANGELES — The Church of Scientology took center stage in Danny Masterson’s trial on Tuesday as prosecutors described how the women who said they were violently raped by the That '70s Show actor feared they would be ostracized from the institution — and friends and family who belonged to it — if they reported the allegations to police.
During his opening statement, Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Reinhold Mueller gave an overview of each of the three alleged sexual assaults from the early 2000s that Masterson, a prominent Scientologist, is charged with, as well as other uncharged incidents. While detailing the women’s relationships with the actor and the steps they took to handle the situation, Mueller explained several different rules and terms used by the church to show why they feared turning to law enforcement for so long.
At least two of the women feared being labeled a “suppressive person,” or what Mueller described as an “enemy of the church.” One of the women was dating and living with Masterson at the time of the alleged assault; prosecutors said Scientology officials had told her that because the actor was essentially taking care of her, she owed him sex and that she “pulled this in,” or did something in her life or a previous life to deserve it.
“She believed them,” Mueller told jurors. “She believed [in] Scientology. She thought, ‘OK, maybe I did pull this in.’”
Masterson, 46, who is best known for playing Steven Hyde on That '70s Show, is facing three counts of rape by force or fear for allegedly sexually assaulting three women at his Hollywood Hills home in 2001 and 2003. In each incident, the women say that Masterson supplied them with alcohol and that when they became disoriented, he took them upstairs to his bedroom and violently raped them.
Masterson has pleaded not guilty to the charges and claimed that he only had consensual sex with the women. If convicted, he faces up to 45 years to life in prison.
During Mueller’s statement, Masterson sat at the defense table next to his attorneys with his legs crossed and his hands resting on his lap. At times, he gently shook his head and raised his eyebrows as the deputy district attorney described the incidents in graphic detail.
In his opening statement, Masterson's attorney Philip Cohen focused on what he called inconsistencies in the women's testimony over the years. Cohen also suggested that the similarities in the women’s stories were, in part, the result of them discussing the incidents with each other — something he said police specifically warned them not to do.
“The talking between these women and the talking between the women and Mr. Mueller … becomes so critical to this story,” Cohen said.
During his comments, he also fought back against Mueller's suggestion that Scientology was a significant part of this trial, emphasizing to jurors that the church and its practices are not charged in this matter.
"This case is about three women who are going to tell you about three nights about 17, 18, 20 years ago," Cohen said, "and this case is about what you believe has been proven regarding those three nights."
Everything else is just a big "elephant in the room," Cohen added. At one point during his opening, he showed jurors a slide with terms like Scientology and "bad boyfriend" encased in a gray elephant graphic.
Though the church isn’t technically on trial with Masterson, the institution and its practices are expected to play a prominent role in the proceedings. During a preliminary hearing last year, Scientology came up repeatedly as the three women, who are all former Scientologists, testified about how church officials allegedly tried to shield Masterson from accountability.
In her testimony, one woman recalled how she went to the church’s Celebrity Centre in Hollywood to report the sexual assault, but instead of getting any assistance, she was warned against using the word “rape” and told that she could be excommunicated from the church — and disavowed by her Scientologist family and friends — if she contacted police.
Another woman testified that after Masterson allegedly raped her while she was unconscious in 2001, a church official instructed her to write a statement taking responsibility for the assault.
All three women are also part of a civil suit filed against the church in 2019 alleging that they were stalked and harassed by church officials after reporting Masterson to police. Their complaint also alleges that they were surveilled, their communications monitored, their pets killed, and their cars broken into, among other things.
The church, which has been heavily scrutinized for its beliefs, secrecy, and allegedly physically and financially abusive practices, has denied the women’s claims.
Over the years, Masterson and his representatives have accused the women of lying, saying that they were motivated by anti-Scientology bias. Leading up to the trial, his attorneys fought to exclude any mention of Scientology during the proceedings. But in a hearing earlier this month, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Charlaine Olmedo ruled that the alleged victims could discuss how Scientology caused them to delay reporting the incidents to the authorities and their belief that the church’s policies barred them from talking to police. Olmedo said, however, that the women could not bring up a dog that was allegedly killed and could only speak in general terms about the alleged harassment they faced after reporting the incidents.
But on Tuesday, as Mueller began questioning one of the women, who was referred to during direct examination by her initials J.B., Olmedo said the prosecutor was "pushing the boundaries" of what was allowed. At one point, Olmedo stopped the prosecutor's questioning to instruct the jury not to take witnesses' statements about Scientology practices as fact, but to only consider them in order to judge witnesses' credibility and whether they were telling the truth.
This came after J.B., who grew up in a Scientologist family, testified that in the church community, "it was frowned upon to fraternize with the enemy," saying that she had been shown a policy to that effect.
During an afternoon recess, a visibly frustrated Olmedo admonished the attorneys to abide by the rulings she issued earlier this month, saying that Mueller couldn't bring up Scientology so freely while questioning the witnesses about their lives and that Cohen didn't have to object every single time the church was brought up.
"This trial is not going to be inundated with Scientology," the judge said. "I need both of you to abide by my ruling, and if you don't do that, I will start excusing the jury every time I need to admonish one side or the other."
After the jurors were dismissed for the day, Cohen requested a mistrial, citing J.B.'s statements during direct examination as unfairly prejudicial to Masterson.
"The jury has been told from Day 1 that Masterson’s a Scientologist," he said. "The jury has now been told ... that Masterson and his religion look down upon those ... that are not of the same religion."
Olmedo retorted that that characterization was not "unique" to Scientology but agreed that she was concerned about the prosecution's particular line of questioning. The judge still, though, quickly denied Cohen's motion for mistrial.
In the wake of reports that police in Los Angeles were investigating the allegations in 2017, Masterson was dropped from Netflix’s The Ranch, which he had appeared in with his That '70s Show costar Ashton Kutcher. It wasn’t until June 2020 that Masterson was arrested and charged. He was released shortly after on a $3.3 million bail and has been out of custody ever since.
During Tuesday's proceedings, Masterson's wife and actor Bijou Phillips and his siblings Chris, Alanna, and Jordan, who are all actors, were among those seated in the court gallery to watch the trial. Actor William Baldwin, who is a brother of Alec Baldwin and married to Bijou Phillips's half-sister Chynna Phillips, was also present.
The trial is expected to take four weeks and could feature testimony from other celebrities with ties to Scientology. A potential witness list shared with reporters last week included Lisa Marie Presley, who left the church in 2014, as well as actor Brie Shaffer, Masterson’s former assistant and wife of prominent Scientologist Michael Peña.
During her testimony on Tuesday, J.B. talked about her relationships with Shaffer and Presley, both of whom she considered part of her core group of friends, and her interactions with Masterson in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
She testified that at the time, her relationship with Masterson was "cordial" and "friendly" and said that she would sometimes go to his house with Shaffer when she needed to drop off groceries for the actor or take care of other things for him.
After the afternoon recess, Mueller shifted his questioning to ask J.B. about a September 2002 incident that negatively impacted her relationship with Shaffer. In that incident, Masterson allegedly sexually assaulted J.B. in his home after the two were out drinking with a group after an event at the Vista Theatre in Los Feliz. (The incident is not charged in this case.)
Through tears, J.B. recalled the pain and shock she felt as Masterson allegedly penetrated her anally without her consent after the two had been kissing and having vaginal sex.
"I just reached, I pulled from the pain because it hurt so bad," she said, choking up as she spoke. "I grabbed, I grabbed — I put my hand on the sheet to pull away from it. I didn't even know what it was at first."
J.B. testified that she was laughing a lot as she and Masterson kissed before the alleged assault. She said it felt "stupid" and "incestuous" to her because he was her friend's boss and more of a brother figure in her life.
"Sometimes like a mean brother, but it kind of varied depending on if he was drinking," J.B. said. Across the courtroom, Masterson was again gently shaking his head.
She is expected to continue her testimony Wednesday morning.