Sweat lodge case: James Arthur Ray moves to drop appeal of convictions

FLAGSTAFF, AZ - A self-help author who served time in prison for the deaths of three people following an Arizona sweat lodge ceremony he led has moved to dismiss an appeal of his case.

James Arthur Ray made the request less than a week before the state Court of Appeals was set to hear oral arguments that focused on jury instructions and the conduct of prosecutors. Ray said he wants to avoid the possibility of a retrial and resentencing but maintained that his convictions on three counts of negligent homicide were flawed.

"I wish to ensure the prompt, complete and definitive termination of these criminal proceedings by dismissing this appeal and allowing the conviction and sentence to stand undisturbed," he wrote in an affidavit released Thursday.

Ray was released from prison in July after serving nearly 2 years, but he'll remain on parole in Arizona until October -- about four years after he led dozens of people in a sweat lodge ceremony near Sedona. Ray originally was charged with manslaughter, but jurors rejected that he was reckless in his handling of the 2009 ceremony that highlighted Ray's five-day "Spiritual Warrior" event.

Neither prosecutors nor the families believed the sentence was sufficient for a man they say ratcheted up the heat in the enclosed structure to dangerous levels, ignored pleas for help and watched as participants were dragged out. Ray's attorneys suggested that toxins or poisons contributed to the deaths, but jurors said that theory was not credible.

When the 2-hour ceremony was over, Kirby Brown, of Westtown, N.Y., and James Shore, of Milwaukee, were dead. Liz Neuman, of Prior Lake, Minn., died nine days later at a Flagstaff hospital.

Ray's attorneys quickly appealed the convictions, calling into question instructions that were and were not given to the jury and accusing prosecutors in Yavapai County of misconduct. Some of those same arguments were made during the trial, but the judge never approved mistrial motions.

The state Attorney General's Office disputed the defense's characterization of the case in their response to the appeal. In a cross-appeal, the office argued that jurors should have been told that Ray had a duty to aid participants in distress and to avoid putting them at an unreasonable risk of harm.

Yavapai County Superior Court Judge Warren Darrow settled on the defense's suggestion that the only duty jurors could consider is whether Ray violated manslaughter or negligent homicide statutes.

Ray has asked the appellate court to act on his request to dismiss his challenge ahead of Wednesday's oral arguments in Phoenix or postpone the arguments. The state Attorney General's Office says it will drop its cross-appeal if Ray's motion is granted. It disputed Ray's statement that the convictions were flawed.

Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk, one of two prosecutors who presented the case to a jury, said Thursday she is pleased that Ray is ending his bid to overturn the convictions or secure a new trial. She said the move "gives the victims finality" and confirms the convictions for the senseless deaths of three people.

Brown's cousin, Tom McFeeley, said the family has moved on to pursue voluntary regulation of the self-help industry. He said he was hopeful Ray would live his life the way he told others to -- with integrity and honesty.

"We know that the verdict was fair, especially in light of what was withheld from the jury," he said. "He's lucky to get out quickly. He should count his blessings and be thankful people are still willing to listen to what he has to say."

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