James Arthur Ray trial: Decision on venue change must wait

The Daily Courier, Arizona/February 11, 2011

Camp Verde - Yavapai County Superior Court Judge Warren Darrow is exercising patience regarding a defense motion to move the trial of James Arthur Ray to a different location.

Ray, 53, a well-known motivational speaker, faces manslaughter charges after three people died during a sweat lodge ceremony at Ray's "Spiritual Warrior Retreat" near Sedona in October 2009.

After Darrow and attorneys on both sides completed a painstaking review of juror-submitted questionnaires on Friday, almost 200 candidates remain to form the final panel of 12 jurors and six alternates. Formal jury selection is set to begin on Feb. 16 and continue for as long as two weeks before the scheduled start of the trial proper on March 1.

Ray's attorneys, including Prescott's Tom Kelly and Luis Li of Los Angeles, have moved to have the case tried in Maricopa County, contending that a survey shows their client will be unable to receive a fair trial in Yavapai County because of what they see as excessive and unfavorable media coverage.

"We think we've laid adequate foundation for the case to be moved," Li said via telephone on Friday.

Darrow, though, was inclined to let the selection process run its course.

"I think it's necessary for the jurors to be here to see how it goes," he said.

And although the defense and prosecution worked smoothly together to winnow through the jury questionnaires, they differed sharply on how the court should handle questioning of the prospective jurors, especially on the issue of preconceived bias.

Kelly and Li argued that Darrow should have the right to excuse jurors who show bias without allowing the attorneys a chance to make their own points. The state, led on Friday by Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk, hopes for an opportunity to "rehabilitate" jurors whose bias is based on media coverage, arguing that some may be able to put aside their opinions and base their judgment solely on what is presented in court.

The charges against Ray, who had in recent years risen toward the apex of the self-help industry, have attracted widespread media attention, to the point that some outlets asked permission to install a video camera in Darrow's courtroom in addition to the still camera he has already allowed.

That request runs afoul of sensibilities on both sides.

"I remember the coverage of the bail hearing last year," Kelly said. "Watching it on TV, they seemed to focus in on Mr. Ray repeatedly. I'm not sure why that's even necessary."

Polk noted that the presence of a video camera in court could lead to streaming Internet video or live television that would allow subsequent witnesses to watch testimony of those going before them, a violation of court rules.

It might also, she speculated, lead to reluctant witnesses among those who attended the sweat lodge ceremony at great cost and without the intention of acquiring personal notoriety.

"They didn't sign up to find themselves on a national stage," she said. Darrow said he would decide early next week whether to allow the video camera.

Kirby Brown, James Shore and Liz Neuman died after taking part in the sweat lodge ceremony, which took place just hours after their return to the Angel Valley Retreat Center from the "vision quest" portion of Ray's program. During the vision quest, program attendees each stayed alone in isolated but nearby locations for 36 hours without food or water.

Ray had successfully conducted several previous sweat lodge ceremonies at Angel Valley. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges against him.

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