Jun 28, 2011

James Ray Sweat Lodge Trial: Aggravating CNN

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

Despite their having the James Ray "aggravation stage" on their schedule all weekend and up to 12:16 EDT today, CNN did a runner. Turns out the gouge on Connie Joy's Facebook page -- that they'd pulled their equipment and skipped town last week -- was correct. CNN's own employees who even confirmed via email were wrong. But that sort of total incompetence is par for the course when it comes to CNN's coverage of this trial.

And Megan Fredrickson whose testimony we were hotly anticipating? In the wind. Both she and her husband Josh took a powder. They are nowhere to be found. Through their attorney, the State learned that she was refusing to cooperate. She and her husband are afraid of being indicted. I expect they'll be avoiding the state of Arizona indefinitely.

Throughout the early part of the day, there were legal arguments which kept the jury in a holding pattern outside the courtroom. In an unsurprising move, the defense made another motion for mistrial. I'm starting to think that shouting "mistrial" is just some strange verbal tic that Luis Li can't really control.

Motions had already been flying back and forth with the defense moving to strike four of five aggravating factors proposed by the State. Prosecutors agreed to dismiss two: presence of an accomplice and the heinous, cruel, and depraved nature of the crime. No doubt these things would have been hard to prove without Megan Fredrickson's testimony.

The list of witnesses offered by the State was winnowed down to three; all family members of the deceased. Andrea Puckett is Liz Neuman's daughter. Ginny Brown is Kirby Brown's mother. Alyssa Gillespie is James Shore's widow.

And then the testimony began.

Even without the streaming video, and relying on nothing but second-hand recounting via Twitter, I repeatedly found myself moved to sobbing. Most unbearable was the thought of James Shore's children learning of the loss of their father. Alyssa Gillespie described her three children waiting excitedly for the return of their father from his trip. She described Shore as an "amazing father," her partner, and her best friend. And she described the children's horrified grief at learning he would not be coming home.

She continued, "The wailing, the sounds... the sounds that come out of a very small child... there's no way to tell your kids that their dad is dead. I just had to do it, I just had to say their dad is dead."

Her eldest daughter experienced extreme anxiety, night terrors, and would wake up screaming "where's dad?" Her son asked Santa to bring his father back.

Gillespie was not surprised to learn that her husband had saved Sidney Spencer by taking her out of the sweat lodge. "James lived as a hero," she said.

Ginny Brown had characteristically strong words. Brown has been outspoken from the beginning, leaving no one to doubt whom she holds responsible for the loss of her daughter. She recently gave this interview in which she openly called Ray a "loser" for not following his own teachings on taking responsibility. She was equally blunt on the stand.

"I was horrified, horrified," said Virginia Brown, Kirby Brown's mother. "Kirby was a great adventurer, but she was very conscious of safety."

Brown told jurors that she blames Ray for her daughters death. Family members of all the victims say none of Ray's staff came to the hospital to help ID them.

She described her daughter as someone who "played full on since she was born."

"I would often describe Kirby as drunk on life," she said.

She described the unutterable pain of hearing the worst words a mother possibly can from a Trooper at her door. She just started screaming, she said.

Brown also disclosed that she and her family have founded SEEK Safely, an organization dedicated to educating people about some of the dangers of the self-help movement.

Andrea Puckett described her mother Liz Neuman as "full of life" and "strong willed."

Like Brown, she described the failure of James Ray and JRI to apprise her family of her mother's condition. She learned of it, she said, from her mother's Facebook page. When Ray finally contacted her, the day after her mother's death, she hung up on him.

The seven days in the hospital with her mother on life support she said were the most difficult of her life. She was overcome with emotion as she described removing her from life support.

Neuman slipped into a coma after the two-hour ceremony near Sedona. Her organs were failing, she had minor seizures, her body was swollen, she was on dialysis and was hooked up to a lot of machines, Puckett said. The family was told she had almost no chance of surviving, and decided to take her off life support.

"You want to hang on to that hope, but at the same time you have to think about her and what she would want," Puckett said. "The hardest part of being there was having to make that decision."

Puckett's daughter and what would have been Neuman's first granddaughter, 9-month-old Lauren, was born a year to the date that she dropped her mom off at the airport to go to Ray's event. Lauren's middle name, Marie, is the same as Neuman's.

She described her sadness that her mother will not be there for a fourth generation photo with her daughter and granddaughter.

Apart from the loss, what ties the family members of these victims together is how completely they were failed by James Ray. Their testimony showed jurors yet another way that his almost inconceivable  callousness made a bad situation worse. None of them were contacted promptly by JRI. Like Colleen Conaway, Neuman spent time listed as a Jane Doe. Puckett described for the jury how she ultimately had to give a physical description to the hospital so that her mother could be identified.

Defense attorneys had no questions for any of the witnesses; for once showing they know the wisdom of restraint. Not when it came to addressing the jury, however. Kelly reportedly took them to task for rushing to judgment. He let them know that he was disappointed in their verdict and in their taking only five hours to reach it. Team Ray can't seem to go a single day without acting like total dicks.

Meanwhile, CNN left confused trial watchers wondering why they spent the day seeing nothing but empty chairs:

Empty tables:

And empty feeds.


  1. Another well written and collated article La Vaughn.

    I ask, how can James Ray live with himself? That's easy. He's in la la land, he appears to be tranked, and he's bought into his own beliefs so much that he can't see outside his own head.

    But Megan Frederickson - I just don't get that one. I do not know how she can live with herself. She knew, even while IN the phony lodge, that JR was responsible and accountable for his actions. And now, she is uncooperative with the State? I don't get it.

    I have to admit. My interest in this case has increased from strong interest to subacute obsession.

    The bottom line for me (like many others making comments on blogs), is that I would like to see the jury come back with an affirmative on aggravating factors, and Judge Darrow imposing the maximum possible sentence.

    I want this type of sentence not in a malevolent or vengeful sort of way (okay, maybe just a tiny bit malevolent and thus the JR "that exits in me"). As well, my desire for this type of sentence is not because I believe that incarceration will help JR become a human being. (Actually, I don't believe punishment and prison rehabilitation does very much for the majority of inmates).

    The reason I want this type of sentence is so a loud clear message goes out to all people. Yes, we are responsible for ourselves and we have free will choice, but we are also responsible TO and WITH each other, and when we have free will choice to TRUST someone who is in a great position of TRUST, that type of free will must be protected and honoured. (Canadian spelling not a boo boo)

  2. May all the loved ones of the victims find peace and comfort in the days, months and years ahead.

    I am continually awed by the courage of loved ones who make victim impact statements.

  3. What really got my blood boiling yesterday was Mr Kelly's (wife beater, manipulator)arrogant, insulting remarks to the jury. He was disappointed in their verdict!! Well...who gives a flying F&#@*k if you're disappointed - let's blame the jury now since the OP, wood, nails,carbon mon, Ted, theory didn't fly. The jury didn't need more than 5 hrs, thank god, 'they got it' I guess he thinks insulting their intelligence will get Death Ray less time.

  4. @Keith, Tom Kelly is a wonder. He can't control his anger. He can only struggle to modulate it a bit. Wife beater... You know that's what popped into my head when he was questioning Melinda Martin. He did everything but hand her a bouquet of flowers the second day of questioning, when he acknowledged their "little fight." He just sounded like such a typical abuser. Yeah. I know I went too far. I just wish you wouldn't make me so angry, baby!

    He can't honestly think that chastising the jury, which took four months out of their lives to hear this case, actually helps his client. What does he think is gonna happen? They're gonna go back into deliberations and say, sure he destroyed people's lives and left three children fatherless, but we were a little abrupt. And let me tell ya, there are only three or four women on that jury. Does he really think he can intimidate male jurors with that kind of guilt trip? Men are more likely to take that kind of chastising as a challenge.

    I can't believe Ray is paying for this defense. They're good at keeping stuff out of the trial but their courtroom tactics are lousy.

  5. Your comment is interesting Keith. My husband and I had a discussion on how we thought the jury would respond to this type of passive-aggressive bullying. After Kelly's comments to the jury, my husband thought that the jury might "feel sorry" for JR and not agree to aggravating factors because of their sympathy for JR, and because they were admonished in front of the public/world-wide stage by this lawyer.

    I said no way. No way that 12 people plus alternates are going to spend many months of their lives away from their own lives and family, come to a decision in a moderate amount of time - (actually I thought it would have taken only 1 hour, but they were likely taking their time to talk about the nitty gritty regarding the differences between manslaughter and negligence) - and then listen to some lawyer tell them that all of their time, their thought processes, their energy and their efforts were ________. Fill in the blank: unfair, wrong, unjust, ridiculous, short-sighted, etc.

    Surely there is some litigation lawyer book somewhere, for do's and don'ts in a court room.

    Expression of disappointment with a jury has got to be in the top 10 no no's I would imagine, ESPECIALLY when they are the people that are going to decide on aggravating factors. That's just dumb.

  6. @Kathy, Megan Fredrickson is scared to death of an indictment. She perjured herself in her police interview which abrogates the immunity agreement she had to give it. It sounds like she and Josh are scared to enter the state of Arizona, which may actually be wise.

    I also wouldn't assume a conscience with any of these people. I'm on the fence as to whether or not Ray is a sociopath but he is a decidedly stunted, ill-formed human being. He has a long history of displaying sadistic impulses and zero empathy for the injuries he caused. And he was escalating. Look at how enmeshed he and Megan were and you have to wonder if she has much if any conscience, either. These people aren't like you and me. They're not compassionate people. They're con artists. And the way con artists operate is by allowing people to project their own values onto them; values they do not share at all.

    This is the hard lesson for a lot of their students to take in. Ray wasn't at all the person they thought he was. He doesn't actually like people or care about them. And it's unlikely he experiences any sense of shame at all. And I wouldn't assume that Megan is so different.

    I hope Ray gets a good strong sentence. But the punchline is that if he got a six months to a year of jail time, it would be an eternity for him. The reason he's so tranked is that he can't sit still. When he's even slightly less sedated than he was those couple of days when he looked like a manequin, he fidgets and grimaces through the day. This is not someone who can stand to be in any situation where he's not in control.

  7. Meagan knew at the 2008 Sweat Lodge that Ray had gone over the top with the heat and she even told him that he had done so. So he knew yet he made the sweat lodge even hotter in 2009. Ray even told a very reliable source who was very close to him that he knew he did something wrong. What a coward,phony and fraud from the getgo. He doesn't take responsibility for his actions yet he tells his followers that they should. Guilty as charged Ray and it's time to pay. Stand up and be a man for once in your life.

  8. @Highest Intention, Out of curiosity, can you point to a source? I know Ray admitted to Daniel Pfankuch that he'd let his ego take over. That's in the police interviews. I'm just wondering if this just info you have on the DL or if it's documented anywhere. It also sounds familiar. I'm just trying to pin it down.

  9. No verdict today. Hmmmmm.

    Even though my blood started to boil when (according to a tweet today), Tom Kelly said "they (the jury) will have to live with their decision for the rest of their lives", I thought it was a brilliant defensive move.

    Holding the jury accountable for doing a civic duty is plain wrong. I suppose the jury had free will choice to refuse to be a jury member?

    However, guilt is a very, very powerful motivator, especially for people who are ultra, ultra conscious of not wanting to cause suffering to anyone - even someone insufferable.

    I wonder if there are people like that on the jury.

  10. @Kathy, I don't know. Maybe it was brilliant. Something is causing the jury to take a surprisingly long time on this. Not having eyes and ears in the courtroom -- thanks CNN -- I'm not even clear on exactly how the jury was charged. And I don't know what Kelly said or how he said it. But what I read made me want to throw something at him. All I can say is that if I'd been on the jury, it just would have pissed me off. It would not have won me over... at all.


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