Motions in sweat lodge case seek to limit evidence

Published 8:00 am Wednesday, December 29, 2010

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Attorneys for a self-help guru facing manslaughter charges stemming from a fatal sweat lodge ceremony want to limit the trial’s testimony and evidence to the 2009 event that led to three deaths.

James Arthur Ray’s lawyers filed motions this week asking a judge to suppress self-help videos their client made after the October ceremony near Sedona.

They also want to prohibit testimony regarding what Ray, his volunteers or staff said or did following similar ceremonies, any opinions on whether Ray is guilty or innocent, and testimony of emotional distress from the families of the deceased.

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Ray has pleaded not guilty to three counts of manslaughter. His attorneys claimed some of the evidence prosecutors want to admit is barred by law, while other evidence is irrelevant to the case; would prejudice their client; violate his constitutional rights; or impair the jury’s objectivity.

“The state is not permitted to try its case by disparaging Mr. Ray’s character,” attorneys wrote in one of the motions made public Tuesday.

Yavapai County Superior Court Judge Warren Darrow already was considering a defense motion to exclude testimony from sweat lodge ceremonies Ray led from 2003-2008 at next year’s trial.

Monday marked the deadline to file motions in the case, but attorneys on both sides asked for an extension to file motions regarding expert witnesses until Jan. 24.

Prosecutors have not filed responses to this week’s motions. They alleged that Ray recklessly crammed more than 50 people inside a 415-square-foot sweat lodge and chided participants for wanting to leave, even as people were vomiting, getting burned by hot rocks and lying on the ground.

Prosecutors have asked Darrow to compel the defense to release an audio recording of a briefing prior to the sweat lodge ceremony. They say the audio and testimony from prior events will prove that Ray knew participants experienced medical distress, and that they point to a mental state of recklessness.

Kirby Brown, of Westtown, N.Y.; James Shore, of Milwaukee; and Liz Neuman, of Prior Lake, Minn., died, and 18 others were injured following the 2009 ceremony.

Dozens of others emerged from the ceremony saying they had a great experience and saw no problem in the way it was administered or in the condition of participants during the ceremony or after.

Ray suspended personal appearances after the incident that his attorneys called a tragic accident. He began offering self-help advice via the Internet about a month after he posted bond.

The trial was scheduled to begin Feb. 16.