Defense: State stretched sweat lodge case evidence

An attorney defending a self-help author charged with manslaughter asked jurors in central Arizona to consider how far the prosecution has stretched the evidence in a case that threatens to send the author to prison for more than 37 years if he's convicted.

The state has not proven beyond a reasonable doubt that James Arthur Ray is responsible for the deaths of Liz Neuman, 49, of Prior Lake, Minn., James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee, and Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y., Luis Li said Thursday in closing arguments. The three were among dozens of people who participated in an October 2009 sweat lodge ceremony Ray led near Sedona.

While the state contends that Ray conditioned participants to ignore their bodies' signs of distress in the sweltering structure and kept them from leaving, that is not supported by the evidence, Li said. Ray gave the participants clear instructions on how to leave by moving in a clockwise direction and when the door was opened to avoid tripping over people in the dark or falling into the pit of hot rocks.

"You can spin it any way you want, that's the actual evidence," Li said.

Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk wrapped up her closing argument earlier Thursday by stating that Ray recklessly and senselessly snuffed out the lives of three people. She took jurors through the last moments of the victims' lives, asking them to determine that they still would be alive today if not for Ray's conduct and his failure to stop the ceremony when people were dying and others were being dragged out unconscious in front of him.

"Ask yourselves why he did not, and that answer is the evidence as to why Mr. Ray is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of reckless manslaughter," Polk said. "He did not because this is what he wanted. He wanted this extreme mental state. This is what he sold to participants for $10,000."

The victims' families, who filled one row in the courtroom, appeared to struggle with hearing the words of Brown and Shore that were recorded during Ray's weeklong "Spiritual Warrior" event. Polk played the recordings that the jury is allowed to consider only for the effect they had on the listener.

Ray's parents and brother sat on the opposite side of the courtroom, while Ray sat stoically among his attorneys.

Li appealed to the jury not to be persuaded by Polk's sympathy statements that Brown, Neuman and Shore were full of hope and life, but to adhere to the truth and the law. Li said there is no clinical evidence to show that the victims died of heat stroke. The defense has suggested that toxins or poisons contributed to the deaths and that authorities ignored that possibility.

"The state didn't look at their own evidence, so there's a real possibility that something else was going on," Li told jurors. "And you are all bound by oath not to ignore that."

Medical examiners who performed the autopsies testified that they could not rule out organophosphates but stuck to their conclusions that Brown and Shore died of heat stroke and Neuman of organ failure.

Li used a personal story of climbing Mount McKinley in Alaska with warnings of freezing cold temperatures and high altitude to demonstrate to the jury that the participants in the sweat lodge exhibited free will as he had. Every participant also signed a waiver acknowledging the risk of serious injury and even death from the events of Ray's weeklong "Spiritual Warrior" event that culminated with the sweat lodge.

"That's the first problem with this case," Li said. "In this country, we're free to choose what we want to try to accomplish, how hard we push ourselves, what risk we're willing to take."

Polk said the waivers are further evidence that Ray knew the sweat lodge was dangerous and life threatening, similar to exposure to the desert heat or being left in a car in the summer.

Both the prosecution and defense accused the other of making improper statements during closing arguments. Judge Warren Darrow responded by giving jurors further instructions on how to consider what was said. The closing arguments come after months of testimony in the trial that started March 1.

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. Jurors can also consider a lesser charge of negligent homicide. Both crimes are probation-eligible.