State seeks to admit audio of sweat lodge victim

AP News
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Posted: Mar 03, 2011 11:11 PM
State seeks to admit audio of sweat lodge victim

A recording of an open microphone event held during a seminar that motivational speaker James Arthur Ray held in Arizona will reveal the mental state of a woman who later died in a sweat lodge ceremony he led, a prosecutor said Thursday.

Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk is seeking to have the audio recording admitted into evidence for Ray's manslaughter trial playing out in Arizona, but defense attorneys contend it's not admissible.

In it, Kirby Brown speaks of the discomfort she felt while lying on the ground for hours, swallowing back vomit because releasing it would violate the rules of a game Ray was playing with participants of his October 2009 "Spiritual Warrior" event, Polk said. She said Brown talks about her determination to stay on a path of enlightenment that Ray promised would be fulfilled through the sweat lodge ceremony.

"It goes to what Mr. Ray ultimately knows about this person," Polk said after jurors were excused Thursday.

Yavapai County Superior Court Judge Warren Darrow is expected to take up the issue Friday morning. One of Ray's volunteers at the event, Jennifer Haley, will resume testimony.

Melissa Phillips, the first of what's expected to be dozens of witnesses, wrapped up her testimony earlier Thursday.

Defense attorney Tom Kelly used a waiver that Phillips and other participants signed to show the jury that they were aware of the sweat lodge event and the risks involved. But Phillips said she never thought anyone would die and that her financial investment affected her decision to take part in the events.

"I wanted to get my money's worth," she said.

Phillips' testimony over two days touched on nearly every aspect of the event in which prosecutors say Ray conditioned the participants to trust him and broke down their mental states through a 36-hour fast, mind-altering breathing exercises and encouraging them to go without sleep.

By the time they entered the sweat lodge, many of them stayed inside the sweltering heat to satisfy Ray and may not have been aware that they were in danger, prosecutors said. Three people were overcome and died, yet others completed the two-hour ceremony without any major problem.

Defense attorneys say the deaths were a tragic accident and that no one was forced to participate in any of the week's events. Ray has pleaded not guilty to three counts of manslaughter in the deaths of Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y.; James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee; and Liz Neuman, 49, of Prior Lake, Minn.

Each of the more than 50 participants signed a waiver when they arrived at a resort that Ray rented near Sedona in October 2009. It included brief mentions of a multi-day solitary, personal and spiritual quest in the wilderness without food or water, a ceremonial sauna and holotropic breath work.

The participants also stated they were aware they might suffer physical, emotional, financial or other injuries and that there was no guarantee on their health or safety if they chose to participate in any of the activities.

"Some people assume those risks to improve the quality of their life, right?" Kelly asked Phillips.

"Correct," she said.

Asked by Polk whether her more than $10,000 investment in Ray's event affected her decision to take part in the events, Phillips said, "Yes, I wanted my money's worth."

Peer pressure, and the desire not to disappoint herself, other participants or Ray also played into that decision, she said.

Kelly's cross-examination of Phillips centered on a key part of the defense _ that participants were free to decide whether to make their own choices. Phillips said that even though she was in extreme physical discomfort during parts of the week, she could have quit any of those activities.

But she believed that someone would be taking care of her _ either herself, one of Ray's volunteers or Ray himself, she said.

Phillips endured the sweat lodge ceremony by lifting up the edges of the sweat lodge coverings to get breaths of fresh air but wondered afterward whether she was "as with it as I thought I had been."

"I was very emotional, shaken up, overheated, not feeling well," she said. "I had a headache and I was nauseous. And I didn't know what to trust in my ability to perceive or do anything."

She was treated at a local hospital for nausea and heat exhaustion following the two-hour sweat lodge ceremony. Her medical records disputed a suggestion by the defense that carbon monoxide could have contributed to the deaths and illnesses.

Defense attorney Luis Li had said in opening statements Wednesday that carbon monoxide was among a number of possibilities for the deaths that prosecutors ignored. An expert for the defense is expected to testify that he couldn't rule out poisoning as a cause in the deaths.