Despite the presence of a change of venue motion hanging over the proceedings, attorneys in the manslaughter case of motivational speaker James Arthur Ray worked together in court Wednesday preparing pools of potential jurors.
Ray, 53, faces three counts of manslaughter for his alleged involvement in the deaths of three people during an October 2009 "Spiritual Warrior Retreat" outside of Sedona.
Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y.; James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee; and 49-year-old Liz Neuman of Prior Lake, Minn., succumbed to trauma they sustained during a sweat lodge ceremony led by Ray at the Angel Valley Retreat Center.
Several other attendees required medical attention after the sweat lodge ceremony. Following a months-long investigation, the state obtained a grand jury indictment on the manslaughter charges against Ray, whose defense team terms the incident a "tragic accident."
Citing excessive unfavorable media coverage of their client, the defense team, which includes Prescott attorney Tom Kelly, filed a motion Feb. 1 asking Yavapai County Superior Court Judge Warren Darrow to reconsider a change of venue motion he had denied in September. On Monday, they filed an affidavit from Dr. Norma J. Silverstein, whom they contracted to perform a survey comparing the biases in potential jurors living in Yavapai County with those in Maricopa County, where they propose to move the trial.
Silverstein's firm interviewed 400 registered voters in Maricopa County and 77 percent responded that there was nothing about the case that would prevent them from being a fair juror, compared with 64 percent of 238 Yavapai County voters surveyed.
In the same survey, Silverstein found that 35 percent of the Yavapai County residents surveyed indicated a bias based on media exposure, compared to 20 percent of the Maricopa County residents who took part.
Based on the survey, Silverstein concluded in her affidavit that she does "not believe that Mr. Ray can seat a fair and impartial jury in Yavapai County."
Wednesday's court session barely touched on the change of venue issue, which Darrow hoped to discuss further on Friday.
Most of the session focused on dividing the hundreds of potential jurors who filled out questionnaires into two groups; those who would be in the initial selection panels and those who would be in a special group because of hardship issues or issues related to bias. The special group would, in the opinion of Ray's defense team and Deputy Yavapai County Attorney Bill Hughes, possibly require a more involved interview process than would the first group.
Many of the hardship issues expressed revolved around possible loss of income during a trial that is expected to last about four months. Hughes expects that at least some of those issues can be resolved through the use of Arizona's "lengthy trial fund," which offsets such losses by as much as $300 per court day.
Issues based on perceived prejudice may not be so easily solved. Some responses indicated bias based on media coverage while others spoke of basic philosophical opposition to the type of business Ray conducts, or to their distaste for the man himself.
Hughes told the court he believes at least some respondents would be able to "rehabilitate" their preconceptions during questioning, recognizing that their job as jurors is to determine guilt or innocence based on the facts presented in the trial, and nothing else.
"There's the outside world," he said, "and there's the court world."
Kelly was somewhat skeptical, citing one response that expressed disdain for "charlatans like Ray" and any spiritual and metaphysical wannabes who prey on gullible vortex-chasers.
"I don't think there's any rehabilitation under the sun that would change this man's mind," Kelly said.
Assuming that Friday's court session completes the questionnaire inspection process, jury selection will begin in earnest on Feb. 16, with opening statement set to take place March 1.