The three women who accused Danny Masterson of raping them at his Los Angeles home in the early 2000s each said the same thing: The actor gave them a drink that quickly made them feel disoriented before he raped them.
In the first trial, which ended in a hung jury in November, prosecutors weren’t allowed to argue outright that Masterson drugged his accusers. They could only hint that was his method of assault through testimony from the women, who said the amount they drank didn’t line up with their memory loss or the degree to which they felt intoxicated.
That changed in Masterson’s retrial. L.A. Superior Court Judge Charlaine Olmedo gave prosecutors free rein to tell jurors that the actor drugged the women in what may have been the key difference-maker that netted the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office a conviction in one of the most high-profile cases since the beginning of the #MeToo movement.
“A lot of these cases turn on strength in numbers,” says Tre Lovell, a Los Angeles attorney. “When you have different women unrelated to each other come up with the same story, it’s very powerful for a jury in terms of credibility.”
Masterson — known for playing Steven Hyde on That ’70s Show — was convicted of two counts of forcible rape on Wednesday after a second trial on allegations that he assaulted three women involved with the Church of Scientology. The jurors, seven women and five men, were split 8-4 on a charge relating to Chrissie B., Masterson’s former longtime girlfriend, with most favoring guilty. He faces 30 years to life in prison.
The actor was taken into custody, ending a years-long prosecution that hit a stumbling block in November when a mistrial was declared. That jury deadlocked leaning toward acquittal on each of the charges.
Opting for a second trial, prosecutors cleaned up their case. They reordered testimony from the accusers, introduced a new “prior bad acts witness” whose allegations didn’t lead to charges and keyed in on arguments that Masterson slipped substances into the women’s drinks.
“The defendant drugs his victims to gain control,” Deputy District Attorney Ariel Anson told jurors during her closing argument in May, The Associated Press reported. “He does this to take away his victims’ ability to consent.”
Olmedo initially barred such claims because of the absence of toxicology reports to back them up. This time, she allowed jurors to come to their own conclusions on whether to believe prosecutors’ arguments that the women were drugged. She also permitted a police toxicology expert to testify on the symptoms of date rape drugs.
Defense attorney Philip Cohen repeatedly stressed to jurors that his client was not charged with any counts of drugging and that there was no evidence to prove the assertion. Contesting arguments on the consistency of the accusers’ accounts, he also said that they communicated with each other before law enforcement officials began investigating Masterson.
While crediting the district attorney’s office for revamping the prosecution, Mark Geragos, a litigator who has represented high-profile clients including Michael Jackson and Chris Brown, says the most crucial change that led to Masterson’s conviction was Olmedo reversing course and allowing arguments that the actor drugged his accusers.
“That was a stark change in the ground rules between the first and second trials,” Geragos says.
On top of detailing a consistent pattern of how Masterson raped his accusers, Lovell adds that claims of the actor using date rape drugs directly clashes with his position that the sex was consensual. He compares the consistency of the drugging allegations with claims that Bill Cosby faced from dozens of women who came forward with identical accounts of how they were assaulted. (Cosby’s conviction was overturned in 2021 on the grounds that a D.A. decades ago had promised not to charge him if he’d testify in a related civil case.)
“With one or two women, maybe a jury can find that they’re mistaken, and there’s some sort of explanation,” Lovell says. “With 40 or 50 women, the jury is going to find that something is going on.”
Former L.A. County prosecutor Joshua Ritter calls the conviction “remarkable” considering the district attorney’s office turned around a case that previously ended with a hung jury leaning toward an acquittal.
“The prosecutors were able to focus more heavily on the allegation that Masterson used drugs or intoxication to facilitate the rapes,” Ritter says. “Jurors sometimes have a difficult time when an alleged rape involves a dating relationship, because they have trouble figuring out how sex can be consensual in one instance but rape in another instance. When prosecutors can say the victims were drugged, that allows the jurors to wrap their heads around what changed to make the sex suddenly not consensual.”
Another crucial difference was the degree of evidence allowed to be presented on the Church of Scientology. The church loomed large in the first trial. It played an even more significant role in the second.
Allegations involving the church were allowed to be considered as the reason why the women, all of whom are former Scientologists, didn’t contact law enforcement immediately after they were assaulted. They testified that they feared being labeled a “suppressive person” within the church, which would lead to their expulsion and isolation from other members, and were told that the accusations would be internally handled.
Their assertions were backed up in the second trial by testimony from Claire Headley, a former high-ranking member of the church, who was allowed to testify as an expert witness on Scientology. She said there was an “internal justice system” within the church and that it’s “policy that you do not call the police” without authorization, Legal Affairs and Trials reported.
In a statement to THR, the church says the “introduction of religion into this trial was an unprecedented violation of the First Amendment.” It denies having policies discouraging or prohibiting members from reporting criminal conduct to law enforcement.
“The District Attorney unconscionably centered his prosecution on the defendant’s religion and fabrications about the Church to introduce prejudice and inflame bigotry,” the statement continues. “The D.A. elicited testimony and descriptions of Scientology beliefs and practices which were uniformly false.”
Geragos says the “key rulings that morphed between the two trials” will likely be the thrust of Masterson’s appeal. He notes that Olmedo could’ve “abused her discretion” by greenlighting the drugging allegations and more evidence on Scientology.
A sentencing date has not been scheduled. A hearing for post-trial motions is set for Aug. 4.