PRESCOTT, AZ - A self-help author convicted in the deaths of three people following an Arizona sweat lodge ceremony expressed remorse Thursday, making his first extensive comments in open court before a prosecutor argued he should be locked up for the next nine years and called him a dangerous man.
Yavapai County Superior Court Judge Warren Darrow will determine James Arthur Ray's fate Friday after listening to six days of testimony in a mitigation hearing. The sentencing comes more than two years after Ray led dozens of people in the ceremony near Sedona with a promise that they would experience breakthroughs in their lives.
He was found guilty of three counts of negligent homicide in June following a fourth-month jury trial.
While defense witnesses said Ray is a compassionate man who should get probation and be given a chance to help others through his teachings, prosecutor Sheila Polk argued that his events progressively became more dangerous and that he ignored the sweat lodge participants who were in distress.
She said Ray lacked internal boundaries as she argued for the maximum sentence in the case.
"The idea that this court should balance the value of Mr. Ray's teachings and this opportunity for him to reach people in the future against three deaths is distasteful," she said. "What Mr. Ray did with his power, with the trust placed in him is irreversible to some. Mr. Ray took that authority, that blinding trust that people seemed to have in him and abused it."
Defense attorney Tom Kelly said Ray never forced anything upon the participants who paid around $10,000 apiece for his Spiritual Warrior seminar that culminated with the sweat lodge ceremony, nor did he cause harm to others in prior events.
"To take that self-help industry, spin it into an argument that if you were to grant Mr. Ray probation, that he would go out and speak to people, causing them to harm themselves is nothing more than absurd," Kelly said.
His lack of prior criminal history, good moral character, and the need to care for ailing parents should weigh in favor of probation, Kelly said. If Darrow sentences Ray to prison, Kelly asked that Ray not be required to serve the time until the appeals process plays out. He estimated that could take more than a year.
Ray himself apologized to the families of James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee; Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y; and Liz Neuman, 48, of Prior Lake, Minn. Ray choked up as he waived his right to a restitution hearing and agreed to pay more than $57,000 to the families to reimburse them for costs associated with the trial.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he said. "I don't believe any amount of money can compensate the families for their loss."
He asked for forgiveness in a letter submitted to Darrow shortly after, saying he regrets "all my efforts to help people's lives has caused them so much pain."
Darrow is considering whether civil settlements Ray reached with the families would offset that amount.
Polk questioned Ray's remorse, saying his actions didn't match up with his words. What kind of man disregards human life, ignores cries for help, fails to check on those in distress, and leaves a scene of death and sickness to shower and eat, she asked.
"That is the man before you, the man you will sentence tomorrow," Polk told Darrow.
But Ray's mother, Joyce, said her son was devastated and wanted to help but followed legal advice not to immediately contact the victims' families or send them letters as she suggested. She said she the response ran contrary to his character.
"For them to have lost their lives is sad, so sad, and we're so sorry," she said to the families in the courtroom before returning to her seat near Brown's parents.