CAMP VERDE, Ariz. – Jurors weighing the fate of a self-help author facing manslaughter charges in an Arizona sweat lodge ceremony that left three dead began deliberations Tuesday but adjourned for the night without reaching a verdict.
The jury is considering whether James Arthur Ray was aware of, and consciously disregarded, a substantial and unjustifiable risk of death in the October 2009 ceremony near Sedona. The eight male and four female jurors will resume deliberations Wednesday.
A conviction on all three manslaughter counts could send Ray to prison for more than 37 years. A lesser charge of negligent homicide would cut the maximum sentence to about 11 years. Ray would be eligible for probation under both charges.
The trial began more than three months ago and has included hundreds of exhibits and countless hours of testimony. Prosecutors called about three dozen witnesses, and the defense had two people testify to support its argument that toxins possibly contributed to the deaths of Liz Neuman, 49, of Prior Lake, Minn.; James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee; and Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y.
Ray's attorneys contend authorities botched the investigation and improperly charged Ray with what amounted to a tragic accident.
Defense attorney Luis Li said prosecutors failed to follow up on mentions of toxins or poisons, and stressed that the medical examiners who performed the autopsies couldn't rule out organophosphates, a chemical typically found in pesticides.
"The state has robbed each and every one of you of the truth, of the ability to determine what the actual truth was," he told jurors in closing arguments last week.
The medical examiners who performed autopsies on the victims stuck to their conclusions that heat caused the deaths.
More than 50 people participated in the sweat lodge ceremony that was meant to be the highlight of Ray's five-day "Spiritual Warrior" retreat.
Sweat lodges are commonly used by American Indian tribes to cleanse the body. The ceremony involves heating stones outside the lodge and then placing them in a pit inside the lodge. The door is closed, and water is poured on the stones, producing heat aimed at releasing toxins from the body.
Polk contends Ray did nothing when some participants at the ceremony were vomiting, having trouble breathing, and being dragged out in front of him. He ignored pleas for help from participants who expressed concerns about Neuman and Brown's breathing patterns, and he did not aid participants when chaos unfolded following the ceremony, Polk said.
Instead, Ray introduced more heated rocks and steam into the structure and stood back as others tended to the ill, she said.
"Are those the actions of a reasonable person in that situation, or are those the actions of a man who is criminally reckless?" Polk asked the jury Tuesday. "Death was not inevitable, and this was no accident.
"Mr. Ray had many opportunities to change the course of his conduct, but he did not."
Brown was looking for the perfect mate and wanted build her painting business, which would allow her to travel. She turned to Ray for guidance.
According to trial testimony, Brown worked directly with Ray during the event and was excited about participating in the sweat lodge.
Toward the end of the two-hour ceremony, Brown was rocking back and forth, repeatedly chanting "We can do it." Others heard her labored breathing during the last round. When the ceremony was over, she and Shore were lying lifeless on the dirt floor and were dragged out of the tent.
"She took the self-help to heart," said Brown's cousin Tom McFeeley. "Unfortunately, she was told she would be safe in this environment and to ignore the signs of her body. And if she passed out, she would be taken out."
Shore was delving into entrepreneurship and writing a book on computer marketing skills. He was curious about how Ray attracted such a following, said one of his best friends, Cody Jones. Shore wasn't going to attend the event until he realized he couldn't get a refund, said Jones, who spoke with Shore two days before the sweat lodge.
Prosecutors played a recording of Shore during the trial in which he referred to his family — a wife and three children — as the "jewels" of his life.
During the sweat lodge, Shore dragged out one participant before returning to a spot near Brown, where he helped lay her on her side and encouraged her with "sweet words." At one point Shore said, "We need help over here," but Ray closed the door and started the next round, according to testimony.
"I think he ultimately in this case sacrificed his life for the truth to be exposed to the world," Jones said. "He didn't just die as a bad accident."
Neuman prided herself on leading a healthy and active life, and had a positive attitude that was contagious, her family has said. She had known Ray for at least seven years and helped organize discussions about his teachings. Other participants in the 2009 sweat lodge looked to her for guidance on how to endure the searing heat as a volunteer for the event and veteran of Ray's sweat lodge ceremonies, they said.
When she started positioning herself in ways that were contrary to what she had advised, other participants testified they expressed concerns to Ray. They testified that Ray responded by saying Neuman "knows what she's doing."
Ray's attorneys contend neither Ray nor those closest to Neuman, Brown and Shore knew the three were dying, and that Ray would have stopped the ceremony if he'd known.
Alyssa LeBlanc, who considered Ray a teacher, said the portrayals she's seen of him during the trial are inaccurate. She said people tend to look upon the self-help industry as bogus and make assumptions about things they don't understand.
The 27-year-old from Los Angeles said Ray has helped guide her career for the past two years. She said she's confident he would never harm anyone on purpose and that he took all the necessary safety precautions.
"Definitely not guilty," she said. "That is absolutely what I'm praying for, and that is what I think to be the truth."