Defense: Sweat lodge deaths ‘tragic’ accident

CAMP VERDE, Ariz. (AP) – The snorting sounds Melissa Phillips heard from a woman inside a sweat lodge ceremony had her concerned. Then she saw the woman rocking back and forth while encouraging dozens of others to endure the sweltering heat.

Phillips testified Wednesday that she yelled out several times for someone to help Kirby Brown but she got a response that “she's fine.” Defense attorneys say the words of encouragement from Brown were so loud that she was asked to quiet down – and were a sign that she was in no real danger.

No one could have predicted that Brown and two others would die following the sweat lodge ceremony that James Arthur Ray led near Sedona in October 2009, defense attorney Luis Li said. Li made the comments as he wrapped up his opening statement earlier Wednesday in Ray's manslaughter trial.

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

When the two-hour ceremony was over, the 38-year-old Brown from Westtown, N.Y., was dragged out of the structure and later pronounced dead at the hospital. James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee and Liz Neuman, 49, of Prior Lake, Minn., also died after being overcome in the sweat lodge.

Li told jurors that there also was no way of telling that Shore or Neuman were in trouble. He said Shore was helping other participants, and Neuman refused help when a woman next to her asked if she needed to get out.

Neuman's neighbor in the sweat lodge, Laura Tucker, is expected to testify that she grew more concerned about Neuman before the seventh of eight rounds in the sweat lodge. After alerting Ray, Tucker told authorities she grabbed Neuman's shoulder to see if she was OK, but Neuman said she 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 has pleaded not guilty to three counts of manslaughter. Prosecutors called Phillips as the first of what's expected to be dozens of witnesses. Her testimony continues Thursday.

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 in an interview almost three weeks after the ceremony that Neuman was quick to respond but she wasn't sure Neuman was lucid.

Ray didn't initially respond to Tucker's concerns about Neuman, she said in the police interview. Ray later said that Neuman had experience with sweat lodges and knew what she was doing.

Jurors listened as Phillips told of losing sleep so that she could write down what was holding her back in life, of early morning yoga sessions and of going without food and water for 36 hours in the scrub forest. She also told of the discomfort she felt lying motionless on a cold floor for five hours as punishment for breaking a code of silence that Ray imposed on participants.

“It felt like I had been hit in the head with a 2-by-4 and my hands and feet were numb,” she said.

The events and activities were part of Ray's five-day “Spiritual Warrior” seminar that culminated with the sweat lodge. Li described one game in which Ray posed as “God” as a dumb corporate game in which participants challenged each other to silly things like staring contests. He said breathing exercises were a “huff and puff” thing participants did to get dizzy.

Brown's cousin, Tom McFeeley, said Li's characterization of the events sounded like summer camp and was “insulting.” Prosecutors say those events broke down the mental states of participants ahead of the sweat lodge.

Phillips testified that she felt “hot, tired, baked” in the sweat lodge but laid on her stomach, put her face to the ground and lifted the edges of the sweat lodge coverings to get breaths of fresh air. The heat became too intense after three 15- to 20-minute rounds. Phillips said she sat out one round but returned because “I didn't want to disappoint him (Ray) or myself or let anyone else down.”

The 43-year-old Phillips from Ontario, Canada, said she respected and admired Ray, and believed in his teachings but also knew she had to look out for herself.

Prosecutors say some participants no longer had the mental capacity to look out for themselves and that the victims would have lived if Ray didn't place them in such a dangerous situation.

Phillips said Brown was rocking deliriously, repeatedly saying “we can do it” over and over again. Encouragement wasn't out of Brown's character, her family said, but she wouldn't have stayed inside if she knew her life was being threatened.

“I think that most people who are rocking back and forth saying a statement over and over are not in their right frame of mind,” Phillips testified.

Defense attorneys said everyone was free to choose whether they would participate in the week's events and that the state's “adults can't choose for themselves” theory doesn't hold up.

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