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Associated Press, Published June 07 2011

Judge denies acquittal motion in sweat lodge case

CAMP VERDE, Ariz. — An Arizona judge on Tuesday rejected a bid by attorneys for a self-help author facing manslaughter charges to cut his trial short with a directed verdict of not guilty.

Yavapai County Superior Court Judge Warren Darrow said James Arthur Ray had a legal duty to check on participants of his 2009 "Spiritual Warrior" seminar, for which they paid $10,000 each to attend.

Darrow also ruled there was substantial evidence that Ray was reckless in his handling of a sweat lodge ceremony that was supposed to be the culminating event.

Ray's attorneys filed a motion for acquittal last week, arguing prosecutors hadn't proved that Ray was responsible for the deaths of three people stemming from the ceremony. They said Ray had no legal duty to check on participants.

Prosecutors claimed they had proved that Ray was guilty. They said Ray conditioned participants through breathing exercises, sleep deprivation, a 36-hour fast and lectures to ignore their bodies' signs of danger.

Darrow's decision means that jurors will return to hear testimony from defense witnesses in the case. Ray's attorneys at one point had listed more than a dozen witnesses, but it's unclear how many they'll call to the stand. The trial is scheduled through June 21.

Ray led more than 50 people in the ceremony at a retreat he rented just outside Sedona. Sweat lodge ceremonies typically are used by American Indians to rid the body of toxins.

Participants began feeling ill about halfway through the two-hour ceremony in which water is poured on hot rock, similar to a sauna. At least one person decided not to take part in the sweat lodge and others on the verge of being overcome by the heat left.

Some participants were dragged out unconscious, while others emerged with no major problems. Three people died: Liz Neuman of Prior Lake, Minn.; James Shore of Milwaukee and Kirby Brown of Westtown, N.Y.

Prosecutors called about three dozen witnesses before resting their case last week.

Defense attorney Luis Li said the participants acknowledged inherent risks through waivers they signed. He argued that criminal prosecution isn't warranted when consenting adults are placed in peril and not rescued, similar to activities such as bungee jumping and bull riding.

Each of the participants had free will and could have left anytime they wanted, he said.

"Those waivers eliminate any duty of care as provided by black letter law in Arizona and the rest of the country," he said. "There is no legal duty and if there was, your honor, it was contracted away."

Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk said the waiver is additional evidence that Ray knew his conduct created a risk of death and that it doesn't free him of criminal liability.

She drew comparisons to cases in which children are left in hot cars. If courts can find that defendants in those cases acted recklessly, this jury has enough information and testimony "to find beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Ray acted recklessly," she argued.

Jurors must decide whether Ray was aware of, and consciously disregarded, a substantial and unjustifiable risk of death to convict him of manslaughter.

Conviction on a lesser charge of negligent homicide would mean that Ray failed to perceive that risk.