In a #MeToo moment, Hollywood personalities face a trial season

NEW YORK (AP) — The #MeToo movement is enjoying another moment in the spotlight as high-profile sexual assault trials unfold in courtrooms coast to coast.

Five years after allegations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein sparked a wave of sexual misconduct complaints in Hollywood and beyond, he and ‘That ’70s Show’ actor Danny Masterson are fighting rape charges during trials in the hallway of each other in Los Angeles.

In New York, trials are underway in sexual assault lawsuits against Oscar-winning actor Kevin Spacey and writer-director Paul Haggis. Spacey’s defense rested on Wednesday while attorneys for Haggis and his accuser made opening statements at an adjacent courthouse. All of the men deny the allegations.

A touching case against fellow Oscar winner, actor Cuba Gooding Jr., ended in New York last week with a guilty plea to a non-criminal harassment violation and no jail time, at the consternation of at least some of his accusers.

The confluence is coincidental, yet striking, in the midst of a cultural movement that has demanded visibility and accountability.

“We are still very early in this trial period,” said Debra Katz, a Washington-based attorney who has represented numerous sexual assault accusers. She is not involved in the Haggis, Masterson, Spacey or Weinstein trials.

Besides their #MeToo reverberations, the Haggis and Masterson cases have become forums for examining the Church of Scientology, albeit from different angles.

In the case against Haggis, publicist Haleigh Breest claims the ‘Crash’ and ‘Million Dollar Baby’ screenwriter forced her to perform oral sex and raped her after she reluctantly agreed to a drink in his Manhattan apartment after a movie premiere in 2013. She seeks unspecified damages.

It only became public after allegations against Weinstein surfaced in 2017 and Haggis convicted him.

“Hypocrisy made his blood boil,” attorney Zoe Salzman said in her opening statement.

Jurors will also hear from four other women who told Breest’s attorneys that Haggis sexually assaulted them, or attempted to do so, in separate encounters. One of them testified via videotaped interrogation on Wednesday that Haggis raped her during an after-hours meeting in his office in 1996, when they were both working on a Canadian TV show.

The jury will not hear, however, that Italian authorities investigated a sexual assault allegation against Haggis this summer, which he denied.

Haggis maintains his meeting with Breest was consensual, and defense attorney Priya Chaudhry noted that the other women who were due to testify had never taken legal action against him.

“Paul Haggis is relieved to finally have his day in court,” Chaudhry told jurors.

Both sides pointed to what Breest texted a friend the day after the alleged attack.

His lawyer pointed out that Breest wrote that he “was so rough and aggressive. Never again, never again… And I kept saying no. Haggis’ lawyer, meanwhile, said Breest added “lol” – a common shorthand for a laugh – when she mentioned oral sex, and told the friend she wanted to be at again alone with Haggis to “see what happens”.

Chaudhry argued that Breest falsely claimed to have been raped to obtain payment. But the lawyer also suggested another explanation for the allegations.

Promising “circumstantial evidence”, she suggested Scientologists had framed Breest’s lawsuit to discredit him after he became a prominent critic.

The church denies any involvement and Breest’s attorneys have called the notion a baseless conspiracy theory.

“Scientology has nothing to do with this case” or with any of Haggis’ accusers, she told jurors. The church said the same thing.

Scientology is a system of beliefs, teachings and rituals focused on spiritual betterment. Science fiction and fantasy author L. Ron Hubbard’s 1950 book “Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health” is a seminal text.

Religion has gained a following among celebrities such as Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Kirstie Alley. But some high-profile members have broken with him, including Haggis, singer Lisa Marie Presley and actress Leah Remini. In a series of memoirs and documentaries, Remini said the church used manipulative and abusive tactics to indoctrinate worshipers to put its goals above all else, and she argued it worked to discredit critics who are pronounced.

The church fiercely contested the claims.

Haggis says he was a Scientologist for three decades before leaving the church in 2009. He called it a “cult” in a 2011 New Yorker article that later informed an HBO book and documentary, and he hinted that the retribution would come in the form of “a scandal which seems to have nothing to do with the church”.

The church, which did not respond to a request for comment this week, repeatedly said Haggis lied about his practices to draw attention to himself and his career.

Masterson’s attorney, meanwhile, is asking jurors to disregard the actor’s Scientology affiliation, though prosecutors say the church discouraged two of his three accusers from coming forward. to the authorities. All three are former members.

Final arguments are scheduled for Thursday in a $40 million lawsuit brought by actor Anthony Rapp who says Spacey made a sexual pass at him in 1986, when Rapp was 14 and Spacey was 26. Spacey denies the encounter ever happened.

Weinstein faces his second criminal trial, this time in Los Angeles and involving five women and multiple charges of rape and sexual assault. He is already serving a 23-year prison sentence for rape and sexual assault involving two women in New York.

The Associated Press generally does not name people alleging sexual assault unless they come forward publicly, as Breest and Rapp did.


Associated Press writers Larry Neumeister in New York and Deepa Bharath in Los Angeles contributed.

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