Judge denies mistrial request in sweat lodge case

AP News
Posted: Apr 13, 2011 9:02 PM
Judge denies mistrial request in sweat lodge case

Testimony in a self-help author's manslaughter case will resume Thursday after an Arizona judge rejected a request for a mistrial, despite finding that prosecutors broke a disclosure rule when they failed to provide a document to the defense.

Attorneys for author and motivational speak James Arthur Ray argued for the mistrial at a hearing Wednesday. They said the prosecution's yearlong failure to disclose an email from an environmental scientist kept them from preparing an adequate defense.

Ray has pleaded not guilty in the deaths of three people following an October 2009 sweat lodge ceremony he led near Sedona.

Yavapai County Superior Court Judge Warren Darrow found prosecutors violated Ray's "Brady rights," which require prosecutors to turn over any evidence that is favorable to the defense and could impact the outcome of a case.

Prosecutor Bill Hughes said the state has provided the defense with 8,000 documents so far and its failure to disclose the email was inadvertent. The email, from Richard Haddow, outlines the environmental conditions surrounding the sweat lodge ceremony.

While Ray's attorneys pushed for a mistrial, prosecutors argued an appropriate remedy would be to allow the defense to interview Haddow and gather its own witnesses if it chooses.

Darrow didn't immediately elaborate on his decision to allow the trial to move forward, but said he would issue an expanded ruling later.

The defense could file for sanctions due to the violation that include monetary penalties, holding the prosecutor in contempt if the nondisclosure was willful, or precluding testimony, said Zig Popko, a clinical law professor at Arizona State University.

Darrow has imposed financial sanctions on prosecutors once before in the case for another disclosure issue. He ordered that prosecutors turn over material that medical examiners used to determine the causes of death for Kirby Brown, James Shore and Liz Neuman.

The judge also now has twice rejected defense requests for a mistrial.

Popko said mistrials are not favored, particularly in trials that have been going on for weeks because of the time, money and effort put into them. The defense isn't expected to present its case for at least three weeks. The trial is scheduled to end June 10.

Ray's attorneys say the Brady violation was made even more egregious because they asked prosecutors four times specifically for any information Haddow provided, but didn't receive the email until last week. They argue the email shows Ray could not have foreseen a substantial risk of death.

Prosecutors say Haddow's email doesn't show Ray is without blame in the deaths. They also say the issues raised by Haddow as contributing factors in the deaths _ including poor air circulation in the sweat lodge and the length of time the victims spent inside the sweltering structure _ already have been raised at trial.

Prosecutors contend Ray recklessly caused the deaths by ratcheting up the heat in the sweat lodge and controlling the humidity, the number of people inside and when the participants could leave.

Debbie Mercer, who along with her husband tended to the fire used to heat the rocks in the sweat lodge, is expected to resume testimony when jurors reconvene. The owners of the retreat that Ray rented for his "Spiritual Warrior" event also were expected to testify this week.