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Saturday, June 18, 2011

Soaring Rhetoric at the Sweat Lodge Trial

True Crime Author Camille Kimball at the Yavapai County Courthouse for the James Arthur Ray sweat lodge trial. The courthouse vista extends for roughly a hundred miles (look at the far mesa)

James Arthur Ray's lead defense attorney, Luis Li, tried for 2 hard fought days to put a lot of drama into his closing arguments. He held up a fat book, the Arizona Revised Statutes. He stacked documents and exhibits on the railing of the jury box. He stormed out of the courtroom--yes, right past me, and through the noisy double doors behind me--and stalked back in a moment later. He put his hand on the shoulder of earnest looking James Ray. He mocked witnesses, he mocked the prosecutor. He repeated the theme more times than I can count "is this what you want from your government?" in a bold attempt to capitalize on rural political sentiments. He raised his voice in outrage and other times laughed in derision.

Prosecutor Sheila Polk, who still has one more day to argue before the jury, has much less drama in her personality. She doesn’t storm around. Her voice has a pretty narrow range. She lets others do the speaking, though. She plays tapes of the people involved.

We heard 40 year old James Shore, sounding vigorous and keen, tell his fellow participants in Angel Valley that he wanted to “live impeccably.”

Then we saw the details of how he tried to save 38 year old Kirby Brown, calling out for help repeatedly, encouraging her, helping move her and ultimately carrying her out of the sweat lodge. Ms. Polk quietly reminded us that he did all of this while struggling for his own life, a struggle which he lost.

We also heard on audio James Ray’s commanding voice telling his followers (the defense prefers the term “customers”). “I am Alpha and Omega!” He admonished them to “live for others.”

Yet when James Shore was beseeching Ray for help inside the sweat lodge, Ray repeatedly said things like, “they’ll be fine,” “they’re where they need to be,” “door is closed--we’ll deal with it next round.” But Ray never did "deal" with the unconscious, unbreathing people. He asked for more hot rocks, more steam and began new rounds. When James Shore was making his last attempt to survive, lifting the tent flap for air, Ray chastised him and Shore let go. By then, Shore was in such a weakened condition that that brief moment when he let the light in became the last sunshine he ever saw.

As the sweat lodge ended, Ray took a fine seat in a lawn chair in the shade while mayhem broke out amongst his followers (customers), his Dream Team and even employees of the Angel Valley Lodge.

He helped no one. He dragged no one out. He offered no water. He did not give up his chair. He did not do CPR. He did not call 9-1-1. He was even reluctant to have the sweat lodge disturbed when told people were passed out inside. One of those was the mortally weakened James Shore, father of three.

“James Shore wanted to live impeccably,” Sheila Polk reminded us. “The student surpassed the teacher.”

The jury is made up of local Yavapai County residents. I wanted to know how these contrasting types of arguments would fall on local ears. I went into the mini-mart down the road from the courthouse. At the counter I asked the cashier if he had been following the sweat lodge trial.

“Yes,” he told me, "I have."
He had lived in the Verde Valley for 15 years, long enough to think like a native.

“If I were on that jury? I’d vote guilty,” he said. “Ray knew they were exhausted and weak. He knew what he was doing.”

I don’t predict juries. But the cashier’s response is pretty telling. Look at this landscape. I’m standing a few feet from the courthouse. If I turn the camera around, there it is, the courtroom where James Ray is fighting for his right to stay in the daylight. The room is just through that glass, on the upper story.

This is not Beverly Hills. In this stark country, folks know you can’t deprive inexperienced tourists of food and sleep and then expect them to defy authority and save themselves from searing heat. Out here, they know that heat kills. Gynecologists from Alaska and ER docs from Indiana*, medical school notwithstanding, can't be expected to have heat stroke top of mind the way the natives do. As the cashier said, “I’ve lived here 15 years and I know how I’d vote.”

Closing arguments continue next week. Then it will only be a matter of time before we found out how the real jury feels about it.

*Two of the sweat lodge participants and witnesses at the trial.

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