That 70s Show actor Danny Masterson must stand trial for rape after three women claimed he attacked them nearly 20 years ago, a judge in the US has ruled.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Charlaine F. Olmedo ordered Masterson to trial on three counts of rape by force or fear, charges that could get him up to 45 years in prison.
She said she found the women’s evidence credible for the purposes of the preliminary hearing, where the bar for sufficient evidence is significantly lower than it will be at the forthcoming trial.
That trial will represent the rare prosecution of a Hollywood figure in the #MeToo era despite dozens of investigations by police and the Los Angeles district attorney, most of which have ended without charges.
Masterson, 45, has pleaded not guilty.
His lawyers said they would prove his innocence, and during the hearing repeatedly challenged the women on discrepancies in stories they alleged the accusers had coordinated in the years since their alleged rapes.
The lawyers said the age of the incidents, which date from 2001 and 2003, made accurate memories impossible.
“Memories fade and memories change,” Masterson lawyer Sharon Appelbaum said.
The actor had no visible reaction to the judge’s decision as he sat in court, with a small group of family and friends behind him.
Masterson’s lead lawyer Thomas Mesereau, who also defended Michael Jackson and Bill Cosby in their sexual misconduct cases, declined to comment outside court.
During the hearing, Mesereau suggested that police, prosecutors and witnesses were tainted by anti-religious bias against the Church of Scientology.
Masterson is a prominent Scientologist, all three women are former Scientologists.
Scientology and its teachings came up so frequently during the hearing that the judge felt compelled to say the church was not a defendant.
The organisation is likely to loom even larger at trial, where most of the witnesses will be either members or former members.
In her ruling, the judge said that a church document on members not going to police about other members and allowing the institution to mediate instead, “sufficiently explains to this course the hesitancy of these women” from reporting their accusations to police for years.
Ms Appelbaum said the three women had colluded to form a “sisterhood” that “seems to want to take down Mr Masterson and take down Scientology”.
Ms Appelbaum said they had spoken to each other, at times in violation of orders, changing accounts they had initially given police.
“Over time their stories are becoming more similar to one another,” she said.
“They’re taking the language of one another.”
Deputy District Attorney Reinhold Mueller said the evidence was “anything but” coordinated.
“These were not rehearsed statements,” Mr Mueller said.
“They were heartfelt, and they each had their versions of what happened.
“If there is any consistency in these statements, it was because the defendant was consistent in these acts.”
Defence lawyers also said a lawsuit filed by the women showed they were seeking financial gain.
The prosecutor countered that the lawsuit was filed to stop the harassment they had been receiving from the church since coming forward.
The church has denied all the allegations in the lawsuit.
The allegations happened at the height of Masterson’s fame, when he starred as Steven Hyde on Fox TV’s retro sitcom That 70s Show from 1998 to 2006 alongside Ashton Kutcher, Mila Kunis and Topher Grace.
He had reunited with Kutcher on the Netflix Western sitcom The Ranch but was written off the show when the LAPD investigation of him was revealed in March 2017.
Masterson, who has been free on bail since his June arrest, was told to return to court for a new arraignment on June 7.