Sweat-lodge guru's lawyers want to block witnesses

The Arizona Republic/January 27, 2011

Lawyers for the man who led a fatal sweat-lodge ceremony near Sedona are trying to keep a couple of the prosecution's proposed expert witnesses from testifying in his upcoming trial.

One of those experts is Rick Ross, who has a national reputation as an authority on cults and cult behavior. Ross, formerly based in Arizona, has a controversial background, including his work as a cult "deprogrammer."

Yavapai County prosecutors want Ross to testify in their case against James Arthur Ray, who is facing three manslaughter charges stemming from the 2009 sweat-lodge ceremony. They want Ross to testify about a mind-control technique that they say convinced people to stay inside the sweltering enclosure, overriding "common sense or wisdom" that told them to get out when they got too hot.

The sweat lodge was part of Ray's Spiritual Warrior event on Oct. 8, 2009, at a retreat center west of Sedona. Three of the more than 50 participants died - two shortly afterward and another more than a week later. About 20 people were taken to hospitals suffering various heat-related symptoms.

Ray's lawyers also object to the prosecution's plans to get testimony from Steven Pace, an expert on managing risk in adventure-education programs. Prosecutors want him to evaluate the safety of Spiritual Warrior's programs, including the sweat lodge.

Ray's lawyers say the trial is about Ray's behavior, not corporate standards, and that arguing about it would unfairly distract the jury.

Ray's lawyers say Ross can't argue that Ray exerted some sort of unusual control over the people in the sweat lodge. They say participants could leave at any time, that some did so and some returned.

Ross' status as a cult expert also came under question by Ray's attorneys, who said he has no education beyond a high-school degree and no special training in counseling or mental-health issues.

Prosecutors say Ross hasn't been involved in the "forcible detention and deprogramming" of adult cult members since 1990 and that his past shouldn't be mentioned in the trial. They said Ross has testified in courts in several states and has written about cults and coercive techniques.

Prosecutors said they couldn't comment beyond their filings due to legal and ethical rules. Ray's lawyers didn't immediately return a request for comment.

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