Defense: AZ sweat building deaths accident, not crime

By Felicia Fonseca
Camp Verde, Arizona (AP) March 2011

One of three people who were overcome in an Arizona sweat building refused help when a fellow participant asked if she needed to get out, a defense lawyer told jurors recently.

Testimony in James Arthur Ray’s manslaughter trial will show that no one, including Ray, could have predicted the deaths of Liz Neuman, James Shore or Kirby Brown, attorney Luis Li said.

Laura Tucker, who was seated next to Neuman during the October 2009 ceremony, is expected to testify that she grew more concerned about Neuman before the seventh of eight rounds in the sweat building.

After alerting Ray, Tucker told authorities she grabbed Neuman’s shoulder, but the 49-year-old Neuman said she was all right and didn’t need to leave the ceremony.

“No hesitation, no delay, no wavering,” Li said. “How is somebody supposed to know that if someone (who) tells you, ‘I’m OK’ is not OK? How are you supposed to know that?”

Ray faces three counts of manslaughter. Prosecutors called the first of what is expected to be dozens of witnesses last week after Li wrapped up his opening statement.

Ray led the sweat building ceremony as part of his “Spiritual Warrior” retreat near Sedona. Sweat lodges commonly are used by American Indian tribes to rid the body of toxins.

Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk contends that Ray conditioned the participants over five days to trust him to the point that they disregarded signs of danger. Doctors will testify that heat-related illnesses result in confusion, she said in her opening statement.

Tucker told authorities Neuman was quick to respond but that she wasn’t sure Neuman was lucid.

Tucker said in a police interview that Ray didn’t initially respond to her concerns about Neuman. Ray later said Neuman had experience with sweat buildings and knew what she was doing.

Li told jurors there was no way of telling that Brown and Shore were near death. Shore helped other participants, and Brown’s words of encouragement to others were so loud she was asked to quiet down, he said.

“This was an accident, not a crime,” Li said. “Mr. Ray is not guilty of any crime. This was a tragic, tragic accident.”