CAMP VERDE, Ariz. (AP) — A self-help author killed three people by ratcheting up the heat in an Arizona sweat lodge ceremony and ignoring pleas to help those who were passed out on the dirt floor, vomiting or having trouble breathing, a prosecutor told jurors Wednesday as she urged them to convict James Arthur Ray of manslaughter.
Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk pointed to Ray and played recordings of his words as she outlined her case.
Ray recklessly caused the deaths of Liz Neuman, 49, of Prior Lake, Minn., James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee, and Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y., in October 2009, she said, discounting the defense claim that unknown toxins factored into the deaths.
“Three families have lost loved ones who should not be gone,” Polk said, raising her voice in the crowded courtroom. “Three people are dead because of the conduct and the actions of this man, James Ray. They are dead because he intentionally used heat to create an altered state and he was criminally reckless about the consequences.”
The closing arguments began after attorneys spent hours debating jury instructions then formally rested their cases. Polk goes back before the jury Thursday before the defense begins its closing arguments and the case is handed over to the jury.
Jurors have heard months of testimony in the case that could send Ray to prison for more than 37 years if he is convicted. The jury must find that Ray was aware of and consciously disregarded a substantial and unjustifiable risk of death to convict him of three counts of manslaughter. They can also consider a lesser charge of negligent homicide. Both crimes are probation-eligible.
Ray’s attorneys contend the heat had nothing to do with the deaths. They called two witnesses during the trial to support the argument that toxins or poisons contributed to the deaths and that investigators ignored that possibility. They contend Ray would have stopped the ceremony had he known that people were on the verge of death.
Polk said the defense contention that unknown toxins played a role in the deaths or that there was a superseding cause “reads like a take-out menu from an expensive diner, and it’s all baloney.”
On the list of defense possibilities were rat poisoning, tainted water, flies crawling on fruit, soil with pesticides and treated wood, she said.
“It’s ridiculous,” she said. “The defendant wants you to ignore what was right in front of your eyes.”
The crucial piece of evidence, she said, is the defendant’s own words recorded during the ceremony and other events in which he describes a “hellacious” hot sweat lodge and profound mental states, and instructs participants to ignore their bodies’ signs of distress.
And she said, “like a child caught with his hands in a cookie jar” Ray immediately minimized what he had done when the two-hour ceremony ended and chaos unfolded, telling authorities that someone else was running the sweat lodge and fewer people were inside.
“That statement shows consciousness of guilt,” Polk said.
During a break in Polk’s arguments, defense attorney Luis Li quickly objected to some of Polk’s statements regarding the prosecution’s burden of proof and an audio clip she played of Brown that Li said were grounds for a mistrial. Judge Warren Darrow denied an oral motion for a mistrial — at least the sixth the defense has made — but let the jury know that it could consider the audio clip only in a limited fashion.
Many of the more than 50 people who attended Ray’s weeklong “Spiritual Warrior” seminar had never been in a sweat lodge before.
Each signed a waiver acknowledging the ceremony would include tight, enclosed spaces and intense temperatures, and that serious injury and death were among the risks.
The waivers came up often during the trial, as Ray’s attorneys made the case that participants had free will, and that he did not physically keep them from leaving the sweat lodge or require that they participate at all.
At least one person sat out the sweat lodge event and told investigators it did not appear safe. Others stayed for the entire eight rounds that lasted 10 to 15 minutes each and had no major problems, while some left and returned as they pleased.
Eighteen people were hospitalized with illnesses ranging from heat exhaustion to kidney failure. Shore and Brown died that day, and Neuman was in a coma for more than a week before she died. Medical examiners who performed the autopsies attributed the deaths to heat stroke and organ failure but testified during trial that they could not rule out chemicals typically found in pesticides.
Ray encouraged participants to stay inside the sweat lodge as a way to break though whatever was holding them back in life.