Weak defense in guru case juror says

Associated Press/July 3, 2011

Flagstaff, Arizona - Four jurors who heard months of testimony in a self-help author's criminal trial were convinced he was guilty on three counts of manslaughter, but couldn't sway the other eight who didn't believe prosecutors had proven the charges.

The jury spent about 10 hours deliberating before settling on the lesser charge of negligent homicide, placing the blame on James Arthur Ray for the deaths of three people following Ray's sweat lodge ceremony near Sedona, Ariz.

Juror Phillip Lepacek, a retired iron worker, told The Associated Press on Friday that the jury believed that Ray was guilty but initially disagreed on what charge.

A conviction on three counts of manslaughter carried a maximum penalty of more than 37 years. A conviction on negligent homicide meant that Ray failed to perceive a risk that his conduct could lead to death. He now faces up to nine years in prison.

"It all goes down to the jury's instructions. That's all we have; that's our bible," Lepacek said. "And if we can't, without a reasonable doubt, go after this reckless manslaughter, then you have to look at the next charge, and everybody was happy with that."

More than 50 people participated in the two-hour sweat lodge, a sauna-like ceremony typically used by American Indians to rid the body of toxins. It was meant to be the highlight of Ray's "Spiritual Warrior" seminar near Sedona, Ariz.

Of the people who became ill, James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee, and Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y., were pronounced dead. Liz Neuman, 48, of Prior Lake, Minn., never regained consciousness and died more than a week later. Eighteen others were hospitalized, but some participants reported no major problems.

Lepacek said the jury gave little credence to the defense theory that toxins or poisons could have killed the three people. But he said that prosecutors didn't have a slam-dunk case, either.

Prosecutors staked their case on the heat inside the sweat lodge and on Ray's conduct, using his own words recorded during the week-long event in October 2009 against him. The defense accused authorities of botching the investigation and failing to consider that chemicals typically found in pesticides factored into the deaths.

Lepacek said he grew agitated as Ray's attorneys pushed their theory, but jurors didn't immediately dismiss it during deliberations.

"There were millions of things afterward that just didn't add up to these poisons being there," he said. "Even though the defense didn't have anything to prove or demonstrate, if they could just get those samples and test them and say 'Here it is.' So obviously I'm thinking there was none."

Dr. Matthew Dickson, who reviewed autopsy records and medical reports of the participants for the prosecution, gained major points with the jury because of his experience with heat-related illness and exposure to pesticides, Lepacek said.

Dickson testified he was 99-percent sure that heat caused the deaths, and that the signs and symptoms of the victims were inconsistent with exposure to organophosphates, a pesticide compound.

"It was a no-brainer there was heat," Lepacek said. "These people were baked."

Four other doctors testified that they couldn't rule out organophosphates, but Lepacek said that didn't throw off the jury, especially when the medical examiners who attributed the deaths to heat "stuck to their guns" on the witness stand.

The owners of the Angel Valley Retreat Center where Ray held the event testified that they rarely used pesticides at the property, but Lepacek said Michael and Amayra Hamilton weren't viewed as credible witnesses partly because they admitted to doctoring photos.

If they were concerned about Ray and his activities, the Hamiltons should have put an end to his sweat lodge ceremonies on their property long ago, Lepacek said.

Jurors heard four months of testimony that, for Lepacek, forced him to rearrange schedules for his children, miss out on some of their activities and stay seated for much of the day with back problems. He said he filled up six notebooks with notes from testimony.

Judge Warren Darrow did a "fantastic job" explaining to the jury what it could and couldn't consider, he said, and jurors picked the right person as foreman.

"It was amazing the diversity in which people could bring this up, go to their notes, talk about it and either eliminate it or use it," he said. "I couldn't get an education like this from going to college. This was something different. You got educated real quick."

Jurors found the youngest of the trial witnesses, Sarah Mercer, genuine in her testimony and others conflicting in what they said in police interviews and what they said on the stand, Lepacek said. Prosecutors laid out the case in a way that was easy for the jury to understand, but Lepacek believed the lead detective was "lucky that he had the evidence to get what he got."

Lepacek found defense attorney Luis Li personable and entertaining at times, Truc Do smart and precise in her cross examination on medical testimony, but he said he was taken aback by defense attorney Tom Kelly, who clearly stated to the jury that he didn't like its verdict.

Lepacek said he didn't pay much attention to Ray's demeanor during the trial, figuring he had been coached on what to wear and to how act like a common person. Ray is a published author who once boasted a multimillion-dollar self-help empire and had appeared on Oprah Winfrey's television show.

"He's just a man, he got himself in a bad position," Lepacek said. "I'm not saying he's a bad guy. It's horrible, tragic."

The same jury also determined whether the judge could lengthen Ray's sentence with aggravating factors. Jurors were unanimous in deciding that Ray's conduct caused the families of the victims' emotional harm, but deadlocked on whether he gained financially from the deaths.

The jury struggled with the wording of a third factor. Did Ray hold a "unique" position of trust with the victims?

Some jurors believed Ray would have had to establish the trust over a long period, but Lepacek and eight others disagreed.

They ultimately decided that the factor existed only for Neuman because she had an almost employer-employee relationship with Ray as a volunteer and had known him for much longer than Shore and Brown.

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