|Written by Mark Lineberger|
|Monday, 30 May 2011 00:00|
As the manslaughter trial of James Arthur Ray continues into its fourth month, the sheer amount of testimony so far has left the jurors an abundance of information to absorb.
Eighteen men and women of different backgrounds sit in the jury box, 12 regular jurors and six alternates, in case something happens and one of the original 12 can’t finish the trial.
Ray, 53, is a motivational speaker and self-help author whose credits include everything from several books to an appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” Ray, a California resident, has faced three counts of manslaughter since turning himself in to the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office in February 2010.
The charges stem from an October 2009 incident at the Angel Valley Retreat Center south of Sedona that left three people dead after participating in a sweat lodge ceremony.
Lizbeth Neuman, 49, of Michigan, Kirby Brown, 38, of New York and James Shore, 40, of Wisconsin, died after sitting in the sweat lodge, a large tentlike structure that was heated to sauna-like temperatures as part of a $10,000-a-head weekend session organized by Ray and his organization James Ray International. Brown and Shore were pronounced dead that day; Neuman never regained consciousness and died after she was taken off life support days later. Several others were injured. While the state holds Ray criminally responsible, the defense has argued that the deaths were nothing more than a tragic accident beyond Ray’s control.
Originally, Yavapai County Superior Court Judge Warren Darrow wanted the trial to end by Friday, June 10. Several delays have since made that end date unlikely.
Still, the jury carries on, paying attention to witnesses, taking moments to scribble in their notebooks and making careful efforts not to speak, read or watch anything about the case while court is not in session.
In fact, the court makes every effort to keep these men and women from being identified. Still, the questions they write down and occasionally ask of the court and witnesses gives a little bit of insight into things that catch their attention and illustrate how seriously they are taking their duty.
That duty includes ultimately deciding Ray’s fate.
For instance, soon after testimony began, a juror went to coffee shop in Camp Verde and saw Ray.
“There was no conversation,” the juror wrote. “I don’t know if he saw me. I left without getting coffee.”
Another juror reported when two women asked for directions to the Ray courtroom.
Three jurors ate lunch in Cottonwood one day and showed their jury badges to expedite their orders, when the waitress said her uncle was on the defense team.
Other similar events have arisen from time to time.
The concern stems from a better-safe-than sorry approach Darrow has encouraged among the jurors.
Many other questions are focused on details of the actual testimony however.
When the state’s first witness, Melissa Phillips, took the stand in early March, jurors asked the court for her opinion further exploring the mind-set of participants in the sweat lodge ceremony. Phillips had attended several Ray-hosted events prior to the 2009 Spiritual Warrior ceremony.
At least two jurors wanted to know more about the ceremony participants’ state of mind, asking if they would have felt an obligation to complete the weeklong seminar given the amount of money spent on the event or whether a participant would have not been considered a “warrior” if they failed to complete the event.
The questions touch on a point the prosecution has tried to make about the sense of peer pressure and obligations participants may have felt to stay throughout the entire sweat lodge ceremony.
Other witnesses brought more questions, including further explanation of some of the games played during the weeklong event or whether Ray’s company or Angel Valley had made any arrangements before the ceremony in the event of a potential medical emergency.
In other recent news, Angel Valley recently reached an undisclosed settlement with the victims’ families and other participants, putting an end to lawsuits against the retreat’s owners.
Other questions simply asked witnesses to confirm what they had said on the stand. When participant Beverley Bunn took the stand, one juror wanted to make sure they had heard correctly that she had testified the man tending the fire said these were the hottest rocks he had seen used in a sweat lodge ceremony.
Of sweat lodge participant Lou Caci, a man who stumbled into the rock pit during the ceremony and burned himself, one juror wanted to know whether he had seen Ray try to help people after the ceremony. Another juror wanted to know what Caci remembered about the materials used in the construction of the sweat lodge. The defense has argued that some of the tarps used in the sweat lodge may have been stored with rat poison, providing one of several alternative factors that could have contributed to the deaths.
Several other questions by jurors throughout the trial were also concerned with the construction of the lodge, including whether anyone with Ray’s company was present while the lodge was being built, or whether any of the Native Americans experienced with sweat lodge construction had ever met with Ray at Angel Valley.
Testimony from further witnesses elicited questions about people who had fallen unconscious inside the tent and whether the flap to the tent was open or closed at the time. Other questions showed curiosity about participants’ perception of time inside the lodge.
One juror wanted more details about a purported shopping trip some of the participants took in Sedona the day after the sweat lodge incident.
As for witnesses who had participated in more than one James Ray-hosted sweat lodge, jurors wanted to know how the October 2009 event compared to others in the past.
As the testimony got more technical, at least one juror was curious about how much poison exposure it would take over the two-hour period of the sweat lodge for a healthy person to “expire.”
One juror wanted to know the specifics of the postmortem medical examination, asking whether a doctor testifying as a state’s witness had conducted an autopsy inspection of Neuman’s brain.
The questions are varied, but they show the jurors are apparently doing what they can to get all the facts.
The trial is expected to resume Thursday, May 26, in Yavapai County Superior Court.
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