Jun 15, 2011

James Ray Trial: Closing Arguments Begin

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

James Ray Listens to Himself

If James Arthur Ray is convicted for causing the deaths of James Shore, Kirby Brown, and Liz Neuman, it won't be because the prosecutors built a devastating cases against him. It won't be because his own lawyers put on a weak, circuitous, and really irritating defense. Those things are certainly factors. But, no. If James Arthur Ray goes to prison, it will be his own words that put him there.

The strongest part of Sheila Polk's closing argument, this afternoon, was when she played recordings of Ray's speech to participants before they entered the sweat lodge. She set it up brilliantly, pointing out that as investigators and first responders were scrambling to figure out what could have caused the mass injuries and deaths after the sweat lodge, they couldn't have imagined the reason. Of course they considered a variety of toxins; even, in the case of the nameless, faceless EMT recorded as background noise, organophosphates. It didn't occur to them that a sweat lodge would have been so hot as to cause such devastation. They were missing one key piece of evidence that would have explained it: James Ray's own description of what participants could expect during the ceremony.

I know I listened to major chunks of this speech during the opening arguments but I hadn't realized until today how clearly Ray had articulated key elements of the State's case. Polk was unable to play all of the sections she intended to play today and will play the rest tomorrow. But what she played should give the jury plenty to contemplate overnight.

In his opening, pre-lodge remarks, Ray told participants he was in charge and that no one was to speak unless they were spoken to.

I will [inaudible] as the grand mastery in this temple. And I need you to think of it that way. Because the person running the lodge is just, is like a priest, if that, if that, if you understand that. Treat it with respect, please. That means you don't talk over me. You don't say anything unless you're asked to say anything... I am the master of the lodge and when I tell you to do something, you do it.

He told them not to listen to their own body's warning signs.

So, you're just gonna have to get in that space where hey, you know, it's just like holdin' the books or doin' anything else, I'm gonna have to transcend my physical body. And you can do this. You can do this. Regardless of whether you think you can or can't, you can. I know you can... It's just a matter of whether or not you will. And there's gonna come a time when you're gonna wanna run; you're gonna wanna bolt. I know 'cause I feel that way, too. And it's in those moments where you get to say, hey, this is my chance to live integrity. This is my chance to live honorably. And to live my values above and beyond my moods because mood says get the hell outa here.

He told them they'd have the most intense altered state of consciousness experience they could have short of hallucinogens.

You will be in such an altered state; probably, you know, the most profound altered state you've ever been in minus psychoactives. Seriously. I mean you, you may see visions. It's a, it's a great opportunity for you to explore your own consciousness. We've had people who just don't even know where they are anymore.

He told them they could only leave if they weren't able to transcend and be samurais and, then, only between rounds.

One of my teacher taught me a long time ago, "Prepare for the worst. Expect the best." So my expectation because I know what you can do, my expectation is that you're gonna go through this like a samurai. You're gonna overcome whatever's goin' on in your head -- this motherfuckin' James Ray shit, right. Whatever else you're gonna transcend that and it's gonna show you. It's gonna give you a very powerful reference of what you're capable of doing. What you're really capable of doing.

Now that being said, if you, if you just get to the point where you just, you just, you gotta leave, you just feel like you cannot... Now, it's a sacred temple and you only move what way? Clockwise. So if you have to leave and you're right here, you can't duck out this way. You have to go aaaallll the way around and go out of the lodge. Now after every round, we'll open the gate for more grandfathers. And sometimes I'll leave it open for a little while just to let some fresh air in. And so, you cannot leave during a round. If you have, if you feel like you just cannot transcend and overcome this, then, when the gates are open, if you have to leave, you leave... You have to be prepared for that but I'm expecting the best.

Ray, for his part, had remained stoical, almost frozen, throughout the day. (My husband suspects tranked.) But as that recording played, he became increasingly fidgety... and itchy, apparently.

Sheila Polk Presents Closing Argument

Throughout a good bit of her closing argument, Polk used recorded statements to great effect. She drew from other points in Ray's various instructions from throughout that week, which he so helpfully recorded and eventually turned over to police. She played his description of how packed tight and pressed up against each other the fifty-six participants would be inside the sweat lodge, negating any notion that he was unaware the sweat lodge was overcrowded. (Remember how he low-balled the number of participants when he talked to Sgt. Barbaro, claiming only forty?)

She also played for the second time a recording from the beginning of the seminar, when Ray had explained his desire to keep people off balance with a vegetarian diet. The transcript of that bit of insanity can be found here. I know there are people who thrive on a vegetarian diet. My husband is one of them and he's a very active Marine. But speaking as one of those people who can't function without animal protein, let me tell you, I would have been ready to confess to the Kennedy assassination after a few days of that; especially with so much activity and so little sleep.

She also played, again, the recording of Kirby Brown describing her self-sacrifice, right down to swallowing her own vomit, during the Samurai Game. I think I found it even more painful to hear the second time around. I can't listen to it without being reduced to tears. What a sweet, sincere, dedicated woman.

But in a really unexpected turn, Polk stole a little of the defense's thunder by playing the amplified, background noise in which a mystery EMT who'd mentioned organophosphates, thus handing the defense their strategy. She took the opportunity to point out the speculative nature of it.

Polk also eviscerated the organophospate question. She explained that Dr. Dickson is the only medical expert who has actually treated patients for organophosphate exposure and he is also the one who rejected the theory wholesale. Dr. Dickson, being from Yuma where there are numerous farms and the use organophosphate pesticides, has had cases of direct exposure to sprayed pesticides. Yet not even the most serious case of direct exposure he treated resulted in death.

She pointed out that Dr. Paul had not only never dealt with cases of organophosphate poisoning, he acknowledged that what level of toxicity and to what degree of exposure a pesticide would have to be, would be outside his area of expertise. Dr. Paul who theorized that the toxin could not have been airborne, could not explain why there was no pattern in terms of direct exposure to the possibly contaminated soil amongst people who got sick and people who didn't.

Dr. Cutshall, Polk reminded the jury, had said there was a mix of symptoms of cholinergic and anti-cholineric toxicity, effectively ruling both out. No medical professional who'd treated the victims after the sweat lodge had determined the cause of illness to be caused by a cholinergic poison like organophosphates.

And, Polk reminded the jury, none of the pesticides used at Angel Valley contained organophosphates. Only the jar of ant poison Luis Li bought and exhibited in court did. There is no evidence whatsoever that such a product was ever used by the Hamiltons or their employees.

Polk further explained that you can't cherry-pick symptoms from a toxidrome and assume that because one or two of those symptoms are present, it must be that toxin. You have to look at all the symptoms and see what best describes them. In this case, that was heat related illness.

Even Dr. Paul admitted that people in the sweat lodge suffered from heat exhaustion. He also admitted that if a core temperature of 105° F had been recorded, he would have agreed with the diagnosis of heatstroke. Ironically, he also admitted that in every one of the cases that he as a Medical Examiner had determined as heatstroke deaths, no core temperature had been available. And though Dr. Paul had refused to do the math, the cooling that patients had experienced in the length of time after the sweat lodge ended would have reduced their core temperature substantially before they could be examined at the hospital.

Polk also laid out how discordant Dr. Paul's ideas about dehydration and heatstroke are with prevailing medical guidelines. The position paper for his own organization of Medical Examiners does not include dehydration as a necessary symptom to prove heatstroke. She further clarified that he couldn't produce a single document to support his unorthodox opinions about the relationship between dehydration and heatstroke.

Dr. Paul also, said Polk, never had the benefit of listening to the recording of Ray's own words describing the extremity of what she so accurately calls his "heat endurance challenge." It is the kind of powerful circumstantial evidence any Medical Examiner would have to consider in their investigation.

Polk compared the defense's case, with all its wild conjectures about any cause of death other than heatstroke, as being "like a take-out menu from an expensive diner. And it's all baloney."

The jury, Polk explained, doesn't have to agree on what exactly killed James Shore, Kirby Brown, and Liz Neuman. They merely need to agree that Ray caused it.

Ray, Polk explained, conditioned participants not to question him, to ignore their own instincts, and to do whatever he said. She cited the testimony of numerous participants as to how intimidated they were by their teacher. And she explained that by the time the sweat lodge was sprung on them, surprising many participants, "they were tired, hungry, exhausted, mentally weak, fully conditioned to follow the defendant's directions."

She recalled Laurie Gennari who said, "Certainly all we did was all about getting an order to do something uncomfortable and doing it. We were well-trained by the end of the week."

The Samurai Game, she said taught participants that they were to follow Ray's instructions or there would be consequences for their teammates if they disobeyed.

The vision quest, in which participants were deprived of food and water and directed to sit in a small circle reinforced the idea of following Ray's instructions to gain benefit from the event. It also probably left them even more weak and exhausted before the sweat lodge.

Polk also played the clip of a participant being publicly chastised by Ray for failing to play "full on" and "playing half-assed." A number of witnesses testified this episode created a chilling effect and only served to reinforce their subservience.

Beverley Bunn testified, "You learned through the course of the week that you don't question Mr. Ray on anything."

Mike Oleson, like many, over-rode his own instincts to help others, because he "wasn't running the show." Ray's temper had caused him to wait to help others get out of the sweat lodge. He explained, "I didn't think it would have been a good idea to disrupt the ceremony. [Ray] doesn't like it when people interrupt the process."

Polk also recalled Dennis Mehravar's questioning by Luis Li in which he explained that he probably would not have saved someone he knew was dying. He would have waited for the end of the round and then asked for help, he'd explained to the incredulous Li.

The financial investment was very much at issue, Polk explained, as they had been promised a "breakthrough" for their $10 grand.

Most importantly, I think, Polk explained that beyond the psychological factors and intimidation, was the very basic issue of people being too incapacitated to leave the sweat lodge.

While participants who were conscious and able to move were arguably free to leave -- at least between rounds; not during a round -- participants were unable to do so by reason of their altered mental status, which is the hallmark of heatstroke as Dr. Dickson and other doctors testified. Many testified they were in an altered mental status, not thinking clearly, weak, hot, and in a self-survival mode.

You'll recall the testimony of Linda Andresano, the nurse from Tuscon, who testified how messed up her thinking was inside the sweat lodge. She told you that the defendant had said, "Well play full on, so I played full on by not leaving the tent." 

She said she was thinking about the theme of death from the week. "I was trying to be honorable by staying," she testified. "I felt this was an honorable way to die." 

The last thing she thought about before passing out sometime around the sixth round was, "It's a good day to die." 

Linda told you, "If I had been in my right mind, I would have gotten out of there. I don't know why I didn't leave. If I had been thinking professionally, I never would have allowed me to do what I did."

Clockwise from bottom: Luis Li, James Ray, Ray's Father & Mother

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that Luis Li interrupted Sheila Polk's closing argument with an objection -- that was completely ignored -- and then threatened yet another mistrial motion based on her "reversible error."

I just don't think he can go very long without grandstanding about Constitutional issues and saying mistrial until the word no longer has any meaning.

Some of the issues he raised had merit and Polk conceded that some of her phrasing was inappropriate. As near as I can tell, the only result so far is that Judge Darrow read another limiting instruction to the jury about the burden of proof belonging entirely to the prosecution.

Unfortunately -- or fortunately?? -- I missed most of Li's diatribe due to CNN's failure to turn on the stream on after the break. (After every break, actually.) I missed some rather important moments in today's proceedings. But I suppose I should count my blessings that I'm seeing any.

I have little doubt that there will be more discussion on this tomorrow and I wouldn't be at all surprised to see another formal mistrial motion.

I know that part of the issue is that Judge Darrow did accept the defense's request for a Willits instruction about possibly "destroyed" evidence. (I don't understand that decision at all.) This put the State in the position of trying to explain why no testing for organophosphates was done, in which Polk referred to the defense's lack of forthrightness about their interest in that possibility.

There was also some discussion of whether the Kirby Brown recording was used appropriately. Some of this is still up in the air, so we'll see what happens tomorrow.

Also pending for tomorrow is Luis Li's closing argument which he anticipates will run about four hours. Four. Hours. Luis Li could bore the paint off a wall in under two, so...

Judge Darrow on Jury Instructions

I also missed a goodly chunk of Judge Darrow's jury instruction; that which took days to hammer out. It was quite long and not a little complicated. It's a good thing the jury gets a copy.

I am pleased to note, as I did yesterday, that included in the instruction is the option to find Ray guilty on the lesser charge of criminally negligent homicide. I just think it substantially increases the chances of Ray being convicted, even if on the lesser charge and for less jail time. As ever, my real abiding concern when it comes to Ray is this: Stop him before he kills again.

I do think that even if he's exonerated he'll have a hard time kick-starting his career. What facility would have him running one of his events after what happened to Angel Valley? But a serious, public consequence for his failure of duty to people in his care sends a powerful message... and keeps him out of commission for a while.

Personally, I think the manslaughter verdict is appropriate, if only because I found myself using the word reckless to describe every new thing I learned about the sweat lodge catastrophe... and numerous other events overseen by Ray. But the lesser charge would at least put him behind bars for a while. 

All of this speculation assumes, of course, that Li won't get the mistrial he's clearly been aching for since day one, and snatch this decision out of the jury's hands.

Totally Gratuitous Shot of Tru Do Looking Despondent

All information on the trial today comes courtesy CNN's live feed. They not only returned unexpectedly for closing arguments but added exciting, new camera angles. All quotes and paraphrased statements that are not linked to a source document are my best attempt to transcribe material from live broadcasts.


  1. Another fabulous article.

    I too lean toward negligent homicide with the idea of recklessness.

    However, I am hoping for a verdict of manslaughter because his time in jail would be longer with that particular verdict, and this would mean that there would be a longer time period where he is stopped before he could kill again.

    I have strong doubts that this man will have a light bulb moment and stand up and be accountable for his actions. From prison, he can still do his "work", I suppose, however, for those that buy into his ideas while he is in prison . . . I can't say I would have much sympathy for people who would engage in that kind of behaviour.

    The people that attended the 2009 sweat lodge were educated and intelligent people and trusted this man and his ideas. When he is out of jail, and for those potential future participants that do not research his history and are inspired by his ideas, my concern is that harm will come again. For all of these people, I have deep empathy for them.

    I'm not sure how one can sit in a court room, listen to Kirby Brown's voice on an audio clip, and not have an accountability light bulb moment go off one's head.

    Hopefully for him and for potential future clients, the light bulb will go off.

  2. Oops, I boo booed. I meant I lean toward manslaughter


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