On Wednesday, after a trial capping five years of public and legal scrutiny, a Los Angeles jury found itself deadlocked in the actor Danny Masterson’s trial on three charges of forcible rape. Over four weeks of testimony, three women described their experience of the alleged assaults as well as the efforts allegedly made by the Church of Scientology to suppress their claims. Jurors wrote in a note to Judge Charlaine Olmedo, Variety reported, that “we are not even close to coming to a unanimous decision on any count, and are convinced this will not change.” Olmedo declared a mistrial, and prosecutors have the option to try their case against Masterson again.
The allegations against the That ’70s Show actor became a matter of public discussion in late 2017 as the #MeToo movement gained steam. The Los Angeles Police Department began investigating Masterson that year, and the matter took on a separate valence because of his prominent links to Scientology. The church, at this point known primarily for its reputation as a keeper of celebrity secrets, was the inevitable backdrop for the trial. The three accusers were all members at the time of the alleged assaults, between 2001 and 2003, and the proceedings revolved in considerable part around the religion’s internal methods. As reported by the Los Angeles Times, a spokesperson for the church said the church had no policy against reporting crimes to law enforcement.
“Scientology is not in this case,” deputy DA Reinhold Mueller said in his closing arguments a couple of weeks ago, according to Deadline. “There are no charges against Scientology. But Scientology cannot be avoided.”
“The rules it has in place has caused these victims…to act certain ways,” he reportedly went on as he sought to explain the delay before the alleged victims made their claims against Masterson. “Fear of going to law enforcement…certain statements about what is rape and what is not rape. You can’t avoid it. These are victims who have had the church as part of their life.”
In his own closing arguments, Masterson’s lead attorney, noting that Scientology was mentioned over 700 times in the trial, tried to distance his client from the nefarious connotations so commonly associated with the church. “We heard ‘Scientology’ over and over again, so much so that it became the go-to excuse,” the defense lawyer Philip Cohen argued, according to Deadline. “Paint Danny as this commanding and scary monster…until you look at the testimony.”
Removed from its heaviest period of media scrutiny in recent years, Scientology has entered a double legal spotlight over the past few months. While Masterson’s trial was underway in Los Angeles, a New York civil jury found the Oscar-winning filmmaker Paul Haggis liable for sexual assault, and he has been ordered to pay the former film publicist Haleigh Breest at least $7.5 million in damages. Haggis claimed that the allegation was concocted as part of an effort by Scientology to ruin his name, but as the Los Angeles Times reported, he wasn’t able to prove that Breest was linked to the church. “The church has nothing to do with the claims against Haggis nor does it have any relation to the accusers or to the attorneys litigating the case,” according to a statement by the Church of Scientology. “The church is a cult and Mr. Haggis is a rapist,” Breest’s lawyer Ilann Maazel reportedly said during his closing statement. “Both are true.”
As Masterson’s trial came to a close, the prosecution underlined the circumstances of how Chrissie Carnell Bixler, one of the three accusers in the case, arrived at Scientology. According to Law & Crime, Mueller described in his closing argument how Carnell Bixler met Masterson at a party her modeling agency threw to celebrate her after she landed a Revlon contract with Cindy Crawford, and how she moved into his home a few weeks after they began dating.
“What she was left with is being in this guy’s world. She was in his world now. His friends, his circle and she gave up everything else she had,” Mueller reportedly said. She did this freely, he went on, “because she believed that this church was going to save her life.”