CAMP VERDE, Ariz. – A defense attorney told jurors Friday that authorities botched the investigation of an Arizona sweat lodge ceremony that turned deadly and then improperly charged a self-help author for what amounted to a tragic accident.
Jurors listened intently as closing arguments stretched into a third day, and they'll be back for a fourth day of arguments Tuesday. Defense attorney Luis Li wrapped up his summary of what has been a four-month trial late Friday, and the prosecution will begin its rebuttal next week.
James Arthur Ray led the ceremony near Sedona in October 2009 as the highlight of his weeklong "Spiritual Warrior" seminar.
An animated Li argued that prosecutors failed to follow up on the possibility that toxins factored into the deaths of three people and said there were plenty of signs. He said the signals included the statement of an emergency responder who suspected organophosphates the night of the ceremony and indications in medical records that some of the participants suffered symptoms consistent with exposure to toxins.
Li further argued that authorities never tested soil samples and waited too long to test the victims' blood.
"The state has robbed each and every one of you of the truth, of the ability to determine what the actual truth was, whether by inadvertence, whether because they just didn't feel like looking at it, whatever it was," he said.
Prosecutors contend that Liz Neuman, 49, of Prior Lake, Minn.; James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee; and Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y., would be alive today if not for Ray's conduct before and during the ceremony. Ray ignored pleas for help as participants were vomiting, passing out and being dragged out in front of him, Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk said.
She said the evidence pointed to recklessness on the part of Ray and there was no evidence that the owners of the retreat Ray rented used organophosphates — chemicals typically found in pesticides.
Li attempted to discredit the testimony of the owners, who said they mostly dealt with pests by talking to the bugs and animals, admitted to altering photos of poisons they said they rarely used and never had pesticides with organophosphates on the property.
Autopsy reports showed Brown and Shore died of heat stroke and Neuman of organ failure.
Li pointed out that the medical examiners could not exclude organophosphates, and some medical experts testified that they would have checked for them had they known it was a factor in the case.
The jury will have to pore over hundreds of exhibits and countless hours of testimony during deliberations as it considers whether Ray was aware of and consciously disregarded a substantial and unjustifiable risk of death — the definition of manslaughter. It can also consider the lesser charge of negligent homicide.
The trial is scheduled two days next week.
While Polk urged the jurors in closing arguments to find Ray guilty, Li told jurors they must acquit him.
"Every single person wishes they could turn back the clock, stop time and take this tragedy away, but this is not a crime," Li said, placing his hand on Ray's shoulder. "Mr. Ray is not guilty of any offense at all. These were his colleagues and friends, and they died. And he's had to live with this, and he will have to live with this for the rest of his life."