'That '70s Show' star Danny Masterson faces 30 years to life after being convicted of 2 counts of rape
Andrew Dalton, The Associated Press
Published Wednesday, May 31, 2023 5:19PM EDT
Last Updated Wednesday, May 31, 2023 10:58PM EDT
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 has yet been set, but the judge told Masterson and his lawyers to return to court Aug. 4 for a hearing.
“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 comment, but his attorneys will almost certainly appeal.
After a deadlocked jury led to a mistrial in December, prosecutors retried Masterson, saying he forcibly raped three women 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.
“We want to express our gratitude to the three women who came forward and bravely shared their experiences,” Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascon said in a statement after the verdict Wednesday. “Their courage and strength have been an inspiration to us all.”
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.
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, which the church denies engaging in, is the subject of a civil lawsuit filed by two of 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. 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.
Next week the judge who oversaw the criminal case 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. He knew both from social circles in the church.
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.
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 attorney 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.