Danny Masterson’s lawyer warned on Monday that TV ads in the race for Los Angeles mayor could inflame hostility toward the Church of Scientology, making it harder for Masterson to receive a fair trial.
Masterson, the former “That ’70s Show” star, is scheduled to go on trial next week on three charges of forcible rape. Masterson is a member of the Church of Scientology, and the church and its processes are likely to figure in the trial.
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The church has also become an issue in the mayor’s race. Last week, Rick Caruso began running an ad attacking Karen Bass for praising Scientology during a speech in 2010. The ad includes a quote referring to the church as a “ruthless global scam.” Bass responded by saying that she “absolutely condemn(s) their practices.”
“The public is being inundated with this,” said Masterson’s lawyer, Philip Cohen, at a court hearing on Monday. “It is a significant problem for Mr. Masterson.”
Cohen asked Judge Charlaine Olmedo to consider delaying the trial until after the mayoral election, which will be held on Nov. 8.
“It’s just horrible timing for the defense,” he said, saying that the ads are “inflammatory.”
He also urged Olmedo to limit any mention of Scientology during the trial. “The word ‘Scientology’ never needs to come up,” Cohen said. “If something needs to come up, it can be called ‘the church,’ ‘the organization,’ ‘a club.'”
Reinhold Mueller, the lead prosecutor, argued that any potential prejudice could be addressed during questioning of potential jurors.
The prosecution wants to call Claire Headley, a prominent former church member, to testify as an expert about the church’s hierarchy and practices. The defense argued Monday that Headley has talked about her “escape” from the church, and helping others escape, and that she would be biased.
Karen Goldstein, who also represents Masterson, argued that the testimony would turn the case “into a referendum on Scientology.”
Masterson’s accusers have filed a civil suit against the church, arguing that they were targeted for stalking and harassment in the wake of going to the police. On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the church’s appeal in that case. The decision leaves in place a California appellate ruling that invalidated an agreement that would have forced the accusers to submit to religious arbitration.
The accusers’ attorney, Marci Hamilton, said in a statement Monday that the church’s Supreme Court petition was “frivolous.”
“The plaintiffs have a fundamental First Amendment right to leave whatever religion they choose, including Scientology,” Hamilton said. “Forcing these brave rape victims — who were harassed for reporting their rapes to the authorities — into arbitration with their harassers would violate their fundamental rights to religious liberty and their rights under Marsy’s Law under the California Constitution.”
Masterson’s lawyers urged Judge Olmedo on Monday to also exclude testimony about the alleged stalking and harassment from the criminal case. Goldstein said the claims are unproven and are not tied to Masterson.
“We are talking about allegedly killing people’s pets,” Goldstein said. “Mr. Masterson cannot receive a fair trial if this evidence comes in.”
Scientology will also figure in the civil trial involving director Paul Haggis, which is also set to begin next week in New York. Haggis, a former church member, argues that the church may have orchestrated the rape allegation as a form of retaliation against him. Both the church and Haggis’ accuser, Haleigh Breest, have adamantly denied any connection.
Update, 9:15 p.m.: William Forman, the lawyer for the Church of Scientology, said in the statement that the church is “disappointed” by the Supreme Court’s decision. The church will now have to defend the harassment lawsuit in the Los Angeles Superior Court, rather than in its own arbitration process.
“While we are disappointed in the result, we are 100% confident we will prevail on the claims against us,” Forman said. “The facts and the truth are on our side, and show that this is a frivolous, baseless case.”
Update, Oct. 4: On Tuesday, Judge Olmedo denied the defense request to delay the trial. She said that jurors could be asked about the political ads during voir dire. The trial is still set to begin on Oct. 11.
Olmedo also barred the prosecution from calling Headley as a Scientology expert during its case in chief. She said that the accusers would be able to explain the Scientology practices that may have influenced their decisions about whether to report the alleged rapes, but that there is no need for an expert to explain the church’s practices to the jury.
“This is not going to become a trial on Scientology,” the judge said.
The judge said she would allow limited testimony about the accusers’ fears of church retaliation, and their claims of harassment for going to the police. But she said she would not allow detailed testimony about specific instances of harassment or stalking.
Olmedo also denied the defense motion to exclude any mention of Scientology during the trial, saying that church practices are relevant to the case.
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