Both sides agree on one thing: The Church of Scientology is not on trial.
When prosecutors and actor Danny Masterson’s defense team recently met in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom for a final meeting before Masterson’s rape trial, much of the litigation revolved around the role the controversial religion would play in the trial.
Masterson’s attorneys wanted Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Charlaine Olmedo to bar any mention of Scientology during the trial, which is expected to begin Tuesday. Reinhold Müller, prosecutor at the prosecutor’s office, argued that he should be free to plead Scientology.
Masterson, a Scientologist, is accused of raping three women between 2001 and 2003. The women allege he drugged them and sexually abused them at his Hollywood Hills home.
The women were also members of Scientology and claim church officials tried to stop them from reporting Masterson to the police.
One accuser testified that when she reported the rape to Scientology officials, she was told “not to use the ‘R-word’.” Another testified that a Scientology attorney came to her home and warned her that if she went to authorities about Masterson, she would be expelled from the church.
“We will work out how you cannot lose your daughter,” the lawyer told the woman’s father, according to her statement.
“The trial is not about Scientology. The trial revolves around Danny Masterson. But apart from that, the facts about what happened, why certain things happened, who was involved… it’s so intertwined that certain parts of the process necessarily have to involve Scientology,” said Brian Kent, who is representing Masterson’s prosecutor in a civil case Lawsuit they brought against the Church and Masterson.
Masterson, who rose to fame with his role on the popular sitcom That ’70s Show, faces decades in prison if convicted of raping the women.
At a preliminary hearing last year, each of the women testified and recounted in vivid detail the alleged attacks. One claimed that Masterson threatened her with a gun when he raped her while she was fading in and out of consciousness.
“You won’t tell anyone,” she remembered him saying.
Another accuser said she was woken up by Masterson, her boyfriend at the time, penetrating her. When she tried to stop him by pulling his hair, he slapped her in the face, she testified.
The Times does not name victims of alleged sexual assault unless they identify themselves.
Scientology practices were scrutinized during the preliminary hearing. Masterson’s accusers testified on a range of issues, including the religion’s “International Chief of Justice,” who is described as the church’s supreme authority, and “wog law,” a term the church uses disparagingly to refer to the police and source dishes from the secular world.
But that wasn’t in front of a jury.
With an impressionable jury set to decide Masterson’s fate, his attorney Phillip Cohen argued at the hearing earlier this month that the actor’s association with the much-maligned religion is being used to frame him as guilty.
“It is disingenuous to say that the government is not taking Scientology to court,” Cohen told Olmedo. He added that the trial would become an unfair “war on two fronts” if he were forced to argue about Scientology doctrine, and suggested the judge would allow only non-specific references to “the church.”
Prosecutors countered that Scientology, founded by L. Ron Hubbard in the 1950s, was fundamental to whatever the women were going through and should be named at trial.
“It’s about her whole life being wrapped up in this church,” Dept. Dist. atty said Reinhold Mueller at the October 3 hearing. “If they don’t follow certain guidelines… they lose their whole lives.
“It’s not that easy not to talk about Scientology,” he added, saying the jury would be confused if the prosecution merely referred to Scientology as a church.
Prosecutors also sought permission from the judge to have a former Scientologist testify as an expert witness to the organization’s structure and operations.
Olmedo struck a middle ground in her decision.
She said the church’s “tentacles” undeniably reached into many facets of the trial and ruled out the expert witness proposed by the prosecution, but felt religion was relevant. She dismissed Cohen’s argument that it should not be mentioned because of negative jury views.
“Evidence presented in criminal cases often involves issues that many in the public view with contempt, including gangs, guns and violence,” Olmedo said. “The fact that a person has a negative opinion on a particular issue does not, per se, make that person unfit to serve on a jury.”
Prosecutors can explain how Scientology caused them to delay reporting their sexual assaults to police, Olmedo said. She added that they could tell the jury about their belief that church policy prohibits reporting crimes committed by other Scientologists to law enforcement.
The Church of Scientology declined to comment on the pending criminal case, but maintained that the religion has no policy against reporting crimes committed by Scientologists to law enforcement.
“Church policy specifically requires Scientologists to obey all laws in the country,” spokeswoman Karin Pouw said.
The court performs a balancing act by allowing references to Scientology where necessary to provide context while not allowing the case to become a trial within a trial, said Lou Shapiro, a defense attorney and former public defender in Los Angeles County.
“Judges are reluctant to allow trials down rabbit holes,” Shapiro said.
Olmedo compared the case to the 2011 rape charge of Warren Jeffs, the self-proclaimed prophet of the fundamentalist Church of Latter-day Saints. The principles of the Mormon branch were admitted in court to provide context for why a 15-year-old girl and a 12-year-old girl were raped by Jeffs, Olmedo said.
According to a court-filed list of potential witnesses, prosecutors plan to call Brie Shaffer, an actress and senior Scientologist who has defended Masterson on social media in the past. You can also call Lisa Marie Presley, the daughter of Elvis Presley, a Scientologist who reportedly left the Church in 2014.
Mike Rinder, a former senior member who left the church in 2007, said Scientologists involved in other criminal cases were relocated by church officials outside the jurisdiction of a court to prevent them from testifying.
“There are certain people who appear to be very important to the events… and I wonder if they will appear at the trial,” Rinder said.
The three women who allege Masterson raped them are also plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed against the Church of Scientology in 2019. They say they were harassed and followed by Scientology after reporting Masterson to the police. The lawsuit will continue after the criminal proceedings.
The women claim that Scientology officials followed them, came to their homes, and went through their trash to intimidate them.
One alleges in the lawsuit that her dog may have been poisoned to death by church officials.
Masterson’s attorneys fought to keep the allegations of stalking and harassment from the civil case out of the criminal case.
“We’re talking about allegedly killing people’s pets,” Karen Goldstein, another attorney for Masterson, said at the Oct. 3 hearing. “The only thing the jury could really consider based on this evidence would be an emotional bias to convict Mr. Masterson over the conduct of this alleged, unindicted co-defendant of the Church.”
Goldstein noted that prosecutors had provided the defense with a photograph of the “admittedly…very cute little dog.”
Olmedo decided that the dog should not be mentioned. She ruled that the women can talk about the alleged harassment or stalking in general but cannot go into detail about specific incidents.
Times contributors James Queally and Matthew Ormseth contributed to this report.
https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-10-17/whos-on-trial-danny-masterson-or-the-church-of-scientology Scientology looms over actor Danny Masterson rape case. How much will come out at trial?