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Jury begins deliberating Ariz. sweat lodge case
CAMP VERDE, ARIZ. (AP) - 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.
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.”
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