New Age Guru James Arthur Ray Guilty in Sweat Lodge Death

A jury has found self-help gury James Arthur Ray guilty of negligent homicide on Wednesday in the deaths of three of his followers during a botched sweat lodge ceremony near Sedona in October 2009.

The New York Times reports

The decision, delivered after a nearly four-month trial in Yavapai County Superior Court in Camp Verde, Ariz., means Mr. Ray was found to have caused the deaths of Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y.; James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee; and Liz Neuman, 49, of Prior Lake, Minn., but did not necessarily recognize the risk he put them in. He could face anywhere from probation to more than 30 years in prison on the three guilty counts as court proceedings continue next week.

The prosecutor, Sheila Polk, had pursued a more serious charge of manslaughter, arguing that Mr. Ray should have known that the way he ran the two-hour ceremony, in which hot stones were piled in the center of the sweltering lodge, risked death and that he disregarded that risk.

The case drew international attention, largely because of the bizarre circumstances and because the deaths took place at a pristine campground within sight of the red rocks of Sedona, a well-known New Age gathering place.

A motivational speaker and author, Mr. Ray seemed to breathe a sigh of relief when he was found not guilty on the first manslaughter charge. But he looked stunned a moment later when the guilty verdicts came in.

Bob Ortega at the Arizona Republic points out that Ray

became a best-selling author, made millions and gained fame for his self-help claim that you attract into your life whatever happens to you – good or bad. […]

Some of Ray’s supporters say they remain convinced the “Law of Attraction” was at work in his conviction. Bob Proctor, Ray’s mentor, said he thinks the outcome should serve as a lesson for Ray.

Family and friends of the victims said they hope the verdict, in Yavapai County Superior Court, will serve notice to leaders in the largely unregulated self-help industry that they will be held accountable when their actions harm others.

Prosecutors had sought to convict Ray on three counts of manslaughter. By finding Ray guilty of the lesser, alternate charge of negligent homicide, the jury in effect decided that while Ray’s conduct caused the deaths, he wasn’t aware of or didn’t recognize the risk of death caused by his conduct – in this case, the manner in which he ran the sweat lodge.

“Mr. Ray has acted recklessly for years at these events,” said Thomas McFeeley, Brown’s cousin and her family’s spokesman, speaking by phone from Illinois. “While obviously we were hoping for greater charges, we’re happy that the responsibility has finally been laid at his feet for the deaths of Kirby, James Shore and Liz Neuman.”

Others relatives and friends of the victims said they were happy with the verdict. […]

Ray’s defense attorneys had maintained throughout the trial that the deaths were a regrettable accident; that by not looking closely enough early on at potential poisons that may have been present, the state mishandled its investigation; that Ray didn’t force anyone to stay in the sweat lodge; and that none of the more than 50 people at the event knew that the victims were at risk of death.

But jurors appear to have been convinced by the prosecution, which argued that there was no real evidence that poisonous organophosphates were present; that heat stroke was the obvious cause and best explained the symptoms reported in the victims and other participants; and that Ray was responsible because he controlled every aspect of the event, led participants to trust that the sweat lodge was safe, and didn’t stop the ceremony when people were clearly suffering, passing out and having difficulty breathing.

The paper also says that the family of Kirby Brown is launching a non-profit organization to educate people about the self-help industry and what questions they should ask.

“If you’re a provider in the self-help industry and you’re convincing people to follow you and to trust you and to be vulnerable with you, and you lead them into harm’s way, you’re now going to be held accountable in a court of law,” said Shawna Bowen, a Sedona-area therapist and author of a book, “Never Again,” about the sweat-lodge deaths.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday June 23, 2011.
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