Trial date delayed in Arizona sweat-lodge case

The Arizona Republic/August 10, 2010

The trial of self-help guru James Arthur Ray has been put off indefinitely, but lawyers already are arguing over the issues that could be central to the case when it finally gets to court.

The case stems from the deaths of three people who attended a sweat-lodge ceremony that was part of a Ray retreat near Sedona. It was scheduled for trial in Yavapai County Superior Court, but the judge was pulled to stand in for a colleague who collapsed in the midst of a murder trial.

No new trial date has been set for Ray. But both sides have filed a flurry of legal arguments with the court, wrangling over such things as moving the trial out of Yavapai County to what kind of evidence should be off-limits once the trial finally starts.

There's also a squabble over the role of the medical examiners who performed the autopsies on the victims. Defense attorneys want to know what was said at a December meeting attended by the medical examiners, detectives and prosecutors.

The defense says whatever happened should not be confidential and asked the court to sanction prosecutors for not disclosing what happened.

Some of the issues could be cleared up at a hearing today in Camp Verde.

Ray's attorneys want the case moved, contending that media coverage has been unfair and has poisoned Yavapai County's jury pool. They called the Ray coverage a bombardment of "sensational accusations" fueled by improper statements from investigators.

Ray's case has gotten worldwide coverage since news broke that two people died and about 20 others were hospitalized in October after the sweat-lodge event, part of Ray's Spiritual Warrior retreat. A third participant died several days later in a Flagstaff hospital.

The media attention ratcheted higher when the county sheriff reclassified his probe of the deaths as a homicide investigation. Ray later pleaded not guilty to three charges of manslaughter.

Attorneys from both sides declined to comment for this story.

Prosecutors deny Ray's contention that a more impartial jury could be found in Maricopa County, saying there's been more media coverage in the Phoenix area than in Yavapai. They add that any bias can be weeded out in jury selection.

Prescott attorney John W. Erickson, a prosecutor in Yavapai County for two decades, said it's difficult to get a case moved. He also noted that the state's Public Records Law required investigators to release many of the details about their case that wound up in media stories.

"The sheriff really doesn't have a choice releasing a lot of that stuff," he said.

Part of the prosecutors' strategy is to portray Ray as driven to increase the number of people at his seminars - and his profits - by staging events where people faced "extreme" physical challenges. They want a jury to hear about medical incidents at Ray's previous sweat lodges and at other events, including one in Hawaii in 2008 where more than a dozen people reportedly sought emergency treatment for broken bones after trying to break bricks with their hands. They say Ray ignored the risks for financial reasons.

Ray's attorneys say the past events have nothing to do with the current case and are merely an attempt at "piling on" accusations so the jury concludes Ray "must have done something wrong." They note that thousands of people took part in the same activities and were not injured.

Ray's attorneys also contend that prosecutors cannot keep the information they presented to the medical examiners confidential.

Dr. John Howard, chairman of the National Association of Medical Examiners and the medical examiner of Spokane County in Washington, said it's a longstanding custom that medical examiners should be neutral.

He citied his association's autopsy standards that say medical examiners "must investigate cooperatively with, but independent from, law enforcement and prosecutors" to develop neutral and objective decisions.

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