In January of 2017, hundreds of thousands of protesters, mostly women, took to the streets in cities and towns across the United States. The protestors wore pink “pussyhats” and brandished signs saying “Resist” or “This episode of The Handmaid’s Tale sucks.” The protest came on the heels of the 2016 Presidential election and coincided with the fledgling #MeToo movement.
Suddenly and refreshingly, women who had experienced abuse at the hands of men were riding the wave of a momentum that could carry them forward, amplifying their collective voices as they pushed for the President and, eventually, titans of industry, media and politics, to be held accountable for long ago crimes of sexual assault.
However, for many of these victims, eager to get their day in court, the statutes of limitations had long since expired.
What are these statutes for, in the first place? While such a law might seem to favor the accused, it has nothing to do with siding with the perpetrator over the victim, and everything to do with evidence; the statute of limitations exists, for most crimes, to protect justice and the truth from the deterioration of physical and testimonial evidence that can occur with the passage of time.
Think back to the last party you went to — can you remember everyone who was there? What they were wearing? What they ate or drank? Certainly, if your wallet had been stolen, you’d remember the moment you realized it was missing. The fear you felt. The violation of someone getting so close to you and taking something so important. But if this party happened twenty years ago, could you even remember what color the wallet was? The human mind is fallible, and memory is not concrete. Physical evidence can get lost, contaminated, destroyed.
And so, inevitably, there is a tension between affirming the experience of assault victims who have remained silent because of fear or coercion and respecting the due process rights of someone accused of committing a crime many years ago.
Danny Masterson, an actor famous for his role on “That 70’s Show” and a member of the Church of Scientology, stands accused of three criminal counts of rape in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Much of what we know about the accusations at the center of this criminal trial comes from documents filed by Masterson’s alleged victims in a federal civil case against him, the CoS and other individuals, many of whom are individuals affiliated with the CoS.
One of Masterson’s accusers, Jane Doe #3, or JD3, met Masterson in 1996, and they started dating shortly thereafter. Masterson has been a member of the Church of Scientology (CoS) for most of his life, and JD3 joined the church shortly after they began dating. The CoS is named in the civil suit because JD3 alleges it was complicit suppressing her allegations, thereby allowing valuable testimonial and physical evidence to fade away.
In the civil complaint, JD3 claims that she reported the sexual assaults to the CoS at the time that they happened. The CoS, she says, guided her into an “ethics program” where — among other things — she was told that, as Masterson’s girlfriend at the time, it was her job to “give him sex whenever he want[ed] it,” and that “if she complied, these things wouldn’t happen.”
Plaintiff Jane Doe #2, or JD2, met Danny Masterson in 2002. She alleges in the civil complaint that whenever she partied or drank around Masterson, she would “black out” and wake up the next morning with no recollection of the night’s events. She indicates that she suspected that Masterson drugged her.
Plaintiff Jane Doe #1, or JD1, alleges similar experiences to JD2 — when partying with Masterson, he made sexual advances which she rejected. JD1 alleges that Masterson gave her drinks which were drugged, and that Masterson forced himself upon her in her impaired state. JD1 also alleges that Masterson once threatened her with a gun before assaulting her.
In California, the statute of limitations for sexual assault is 10 years. This means that the state legislature has decided that due process rights of someone accused of committing a rape more than 10 years ago outweighs the value of evidence of such a crime after so much time.
However, the California legislature has also determined that any crime that is punishable with a sentence of life in prison is not subject to any statute of limitations. And among the crimes which can be prosecuted without regard to the age of the accusations or the evidence are sexual assaults in which the perpetrator:
- Kidnapped the victim;
- Used a dangerous or deadly weapon or a firearm in the commission of the assault;
- Has been convicted of committing sexual assault against more than one victim; or
- Administered a controlled substance to the victim in the commission of the sexual assault.
Witnesses for the prosecution have alleged that Masterson committed each of these acts. The District Attorney’s office has decided that they believe that the evidence that they have collected is strong enough — even after all these years — to enhance the charges beyond the statutory skepticism that evidence has deteriorated over time and to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Masterson committed these acts. The defense has denied all of these allegations and has objected to the application of the law in this manner in a procedural motion called a demurrer.
While the subject of the demurrer would be decided in a subsequent hearing (and will be covered in an upcoming Crime Story report), the tension between Masterson’s due process rights and the #metoo justice is likely to remain a key aspect of this case.