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.
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. That case is now before the U.S. Supreme Court, after a California appeals court ruled that the church could not enforce an agreement forcing the accusers to submit to religious arbitration.
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.
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