Manslaughter Trial Begins for AZ Sweat Lodge Operator
Opening arguments begin today in the trial of James Arthur Ray, owner of the Sedona, AZ sweat lodge where three people died in 2009. Ray is charged with three counts of manslaughter. The prosecution alleges he was criminally reckless. Among other things:
Prosecutors maintain that Ray psychologically pressured participants to remain in the lodge even when they weren't feeling well, contributing to their deaths.
The defense claims the deaths were an accident.
"We do not seek to minimize the tragedy of the sweat lodge deaths," said a December 2009 letter to prosecutors from defense attorney Luis Li. "But these deaths were not the result of criminal conduct. Mr. Ray and his team relied on Angel Valley to provide a safe environment, warned people of the risks, did not force people to participate, did not prevent them from leaving, and did everything they could to prepare for any problems and to assist when problems arose."
It began Oct. 4, 2009, at the Angel Valley Retreat Center west of Sedona and included a number of exercises that the participants did in sequence at Ray's direction. The participants did what they were told, according to court documents, and at times were forced to observe total silence.
Using holotropic breath work, participants hyperventilated into a trancelike state. In a so-called vision quest, they spent 36 hours alone in the wild without food or water and without leaving a 6-foot circle drawn in the dirt. Finally, they entered the sweat lodge, similar to those used in Native American purification ceremonies, made of blankets and tarps with a center pit filled with heated rocks. The last two events were done just hours apart.
Ray's lawyer says Ray reminded people to hydrate and told them about the heat they would encounter. They also signed releases acknowledging there would be high temperatures in enclosed spaces. A recent motion filed by the prosecution claims:
A motion filed by County Attorney Sheila Polk describes how prosecutors say the sweat-lodge incident unfolded: Participants learned of the exercise only 30 minutes before it started. Ray told the participants that the heat would be so intense they would feel as if they were going to die, so hot it would feel like their skin would fall off the bone. They would be facing death and overcoming it. Ray spoke about putting their lives on the line and "playing full on" in order to reach a higher level of being.
Ray has a website which contains many arguments by his lawyers as to why he is not guilty. The defense failed yesterday in a bid to move the trial out of Yavapai County.
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