James Arthur Ray was found guilty on three counts of negligent homicide. Authorities originally charged Ray with manslaughter, but jurors rejected arguments that he was reckless in his handling of the October 2009 ceremony.
Prosecutors are urging Yavapai County Superior Court Judge Warren Darrow to hand down the maximum sentence Friday to keep Ray off the self-help circuit and from harming others. Ray’s attorneys say probation is best for a man who has shown remorse, lacks prior criminal history and is the sole caretaker for ailing parents.
Ray’s motivational mantra drew dozens of people to a retreat nestled in the scrub forest near Sedona with a promise that the sweat lodge ceremony typically used by American Indians to cleanse the body would help them break through whatever was holding them back in life.
Participants began showing signs of distress about half way through the two-hour ceremony. By the time it was over, some were vomiting, struggling to breathe and lying lifeless on the ground. Two people _ Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y., and James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee _ were pronounced dead. Liz Neuman, 49, of Prior Lake, Minn., slipped into a coma and never regained consciousness. She died more than a week later at a Flagstaff hospital.
The trial was a mix of lengthy witness testimony and legal wrangling that lasted four months. Witnesses painted conflicting pictures of Ray, with some describing a man who was more like a coach encouraging participants to do their best to endure the heat but never forcing them to remain in the sweat lodge. Others said they learned through breathing exercises, a 36-hour fast, and a game in which Ray portrayed God that they dare not question him and lost the mental and physical ability to take care of themselves or others in the sweat lodge.
Prosecutors contended that Ray ignored pleas for help and watched as participants were dragged out of the sweat lodge. Ray’s attorneys suggested that toxins or poisons contributed to the deaths, but jurors said that theory was not credible.
Ray’s attorneys made at least nine requests for a retrial or mistrial based on what they say were errors by the prosecution. While Darrow ruled that prosecutors broke disclosure rules, he rejected each of the defense requests. The case is bound for appeal.