Lawyers are scheduled to make opening statements at Danny Masterson’s rape trial on Tuesday, with the jury selection expected by mid-morning.
Over the past week, the initial pool of 225 potential jurors has been reduced to about 85. On Monday, the defense and prosecution began questioning potential jurors in open hearing – in what is called a voir dire – after an initial round of screening from Judge Charlene Olmedo.
One of the main questions was how much potential jurors knew about Scientology. Masterson is a Scientologist and each of his three accusers was a Scientologist at the time of the alleged rape. The defendants – all now former Scientologists – said they delayed going to the police for fear of possible expulsion.
At the beginning of his questioning, defense attorney Philip Cohen confirmed that Scientology was not on trial.
“Scientology isn’t a party (in this case), but you’ll hear about it,” Cohen said. “Whether you feel strongly about your own religion – or strongly against other religions – that is going to be a problem.”
Over the past several days, several jurors have said they saw or read something about Scientology. By far the most popular source of information was “Scientology and Beyond,” an A&E documentary series hosted by former Scientologist Leah Remini, a critic of the church. The two-hour final show, in 2019, included a discussion of the Masterson case. Masterson’s lawyers argued that Remini is actually a “victim advocate” for one of the defendants.
Several jurors who said they watched the show have already been exonerated, although no reason has been given for their dismissal.
Jurors familiar with the church were not required to provide any details of what they saw or read, so as not to contaminate the harm of other jurors. Someone said he had read many articles about the church. When the judge asked him to only say whether the articles were positive or negative, he said, “I don’t think I’ve read a positive article about that organization.”
He was excused.
Several jurors said they knew little or nothing about the church. A few identified Tom Cruise as a Scientologist, but they knew nothing more about the beliefs and practices of the church. Some said they only heard the name “Scientology”.
One of them said, “I saw their imposing building.”
At least one person said she had read L. Ron Hubbard’s “Dianetics” or a similar book, and others said they had seen ads promoting Scientology. A couple said they saw television ads in which Rick Caruso, the candidate for mayor of Los Angeles, attacks rival Karen Bass for appearing at a Scientology event.
Only two of the jurors said they had met a Scientologist. Someone said he worked for a company in the 1990s where the owner, and most of the staff, were Scientologists. He said his co-workers didn’t talk much about their religion.
“Maybe I asked,” the person said. “It was a long time ago.”
That person was excused. Another juror said he had friends who had left the church and had complaints about it.
“They considered it a traumatic experience,” he said. “I know it’s a restricted organization.”
The juror said it would be hard to put that aside and be fair. The person appears to have been relieved by lunchtime on Monday.
But the vast majority of jurors said they could be fair with Masterson regardless of his religion.
Addressing the jury on Monday afternoon, Cohen called Scientology “the elephant in the room.”
“Does Mr. Masterson’s past and present relationship, involvement, and standing as a Scientologist have any bearing on how you view him in terms of the government’s burden to prove the charges?” Cohen said. “This is something I really need to know.”
No one raised his hand.
The jurors were also asked about their feelings about the #MeToo movement. One of the men expressed skepticism about allegations that date back as far back as possible.
“Why does it take so many years for someone to advance?” Asked.
Another man, who described himself as a feminist, said he felt inclined to support the testimony of an accused.
“I think the victim has the courage to take a stand – there may be some truth,” he said.
When asked if he would be able to set his streak aside and follow the judge’s instructions, he said, “I personally think it would be difficult to do.”
Cohen thanked him for his honesty.
“This is terrible,” Cohen said.