Actor Danny Masterson, best known for his role on “That '70s Show,” was charged with three counts of rape.
Actor Danny Masterson, charged with raping three women and best known for playing sarcastic teen Steven Hyde on “That '70s Show,” made his first appearance in a Los Angeles courtroom on Friday, where his attorney declared him innocent and denounced his rape charges as “politicized.”
Masterson, 44, who has been free on bail since his June arrest, stood in court in a blue suit and face mask next to attorneys Tom Mesereau and Sharon Appelbaum, as the three women sat in the gallery.
Masterson did not enter a plea, but Mesereau said the charges, based on events nearly 20 years old, were the result of unfair hype from media outlets and pressure to prosecute his client as Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey faces an election.
“There have been repeated attempts to politicize this case,” said Mesereau, who also represented Bill Cosby and Michael Jackson in their sexual misconduct cases. “He is absolutely not guilty and we're going to prove it.”
Deputy District Attorney Reinhold Mueller of the Sex Crimes Division, who is prosecuting the case, called the statements “pure speculation, with no basis in fact.”
Mesereau spoke as the judge was considering media requests to allow media cameras in court, which he approved.
Mesereau argued that the media presence would be unfairly prejudicial to Masterson and taint potential jurors.
“We want to do anything we can to tone down the cameras and the circus-like atmosphere that have pervaded this case,” the attorney said. “We're just trying to protect his rights.”
Superior Court Judge Miguel T. Espinoza also denied a request from the defense for a protective order sealing case files and preventing police, prosecutors and potential witnesses from revealing case information to the media, but said he would reconsider similar request later.
The defense has filed documents asking the criminal complaint against Masterson be thrown out as insufficient. A hearing on the issue will be held before Masterson is asked to enter a plea.
About 20 friends and supporters accompanied Masterson to court, standing in the courthouse hall with him as he awaited the hearing, but only a few were allowed inside the courtroom because of coronavirus distancing requirements.
He spoke only to answer “yes” to the judge's questions.
In June, Masterson was charged with three counts of rape by force or fear. He is accused of raping a 23-year-old woman between January and December 2001, according to the district attorney's complaint. He is also accused of raping a 28-year-old woman in April 2003, as well as a 23-year-old woman he had invited to his home sometime between October and December of 2003
According to Mueller, all of the alleged crimes occurred at Masterson's home in Hollywood Hills. If convicted as charged, the actor faces a possible maximum sentence of 45 years to life in state prison.
Neither Masterson and his attorneys, nor the three women, spoke to reporters outside of court on Friday.
The alleged rapes occurred at the height of Masterson’s fame as he starred on the retro sitcom “That ’70s Show” alongside Ashton Kutcher, Mila Kunis and Topher Grace. The series ran on Fox TV from 1998 to 2006 and has had a long afterlife in reruns.
He had reunited with Kutcher on the Netflix western sitcom “The Ranch” when the LAPD investigation of him was revealed in March 2017. The news did not have immediate career repercussions for Masterson, but later in the year, after allegations against Harvey Weinstein shook Hollywood’s culture, he was written off the show.
Masterson decried the Hollywood atmosphere that led to his losing the job, and also suggested at the time that his high-profile membership in the Church of Scientology was leading to his persecution. He said in a 2017 statement that “in the current climate, it seems as if you are presumed guilty the moment you are accused.”
In August 2019, four women who accused Masterson of raping or sexually assaulting them filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court against the actor and the Church of Scientology, according to the Huffington Post and The Hollywood Reporter. The suit accused Masterson and the Church of Scientology of engaging in stalking, physical invasion of privacy and a conspiracy to obstruct justice, among other allegations, according to a complaint.
Masterson called the lawsuit “beyond ridiculous” in a statement to USA TODAY at the time. The Church of Scientology also called the lawsuit “baseless” in a statement to the Huffington Post, saying it “will go nowhere because the claims are ludicrous and a sham. It’s a dishonest and hallucinatory publicity stunt.”
Shortly after the women filed their lawsuit, actress and ex-Scientologist Leah Remini interviewed accusers about their experiences and their interactions with the church for her show, “Scientology and the Aftermath.”
One accuser she talked to was Crissie Bixler, an ex-girlfriend of Masterson's, who accused him of raping her when she was unconscious in 2001. When she reported the incident to a church ethics officer, she said she was told: “It's not rape if you've been in a consensual relationship.”
In an Aug. 13 letter quoted on “Scientology and the Aftermath,” the Church of Scientology refuted the account, saying, “Ms. Bixler never once told the Church about her accusations, and the Church never retaliated against her for making the claim.”
In 2017, Netflix executive Andy Yeatman, director of children's content, lost his job after he allegedly told a woman who accused Masterson of sexual assault that Netflix didn't believe Masterson's accusers.
In June, Remini shared her excitement in response to Masterson's latest charges on Twitter, writing, “Finally, victims are being heard when it comes to Scientology! Praise the lord! This is just the beginning Scientology, your days of getting away with it is coming to an end.”
Contributing: Maria Puente, Rasha Ali, USA TODAY; Andrew Dalton, Associated Press
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