By Felicia Fonseca
Prosecutors say it's a blatant case of manslaughter by a man who recklessly crammed dozens of people in a 400-square-foot sweat lodge and chided them for wanting to leave, even as people were vomiting, getting burned by hot rocks and lying lifeless on the ground.
The two sides will be on display in coming months now that prosecutors have charged Ray with manslaughter in a case that could send him to prison for more than 35 years. The 52-year-old Ray said nothing during his first court appearance Thursday, and his lawyer entered a not guilty plea.
Ray's strongest defense will be that the participants were made aware of the risks the ceremony presented, including extreme temperatures in a small space and the possibility of injury or death, and voluntarily went in, criminal defense attorneys said.
But that won't necessarily put Ray in the clear.
"Even though they assumed risks, that doesn't necessarily take the defendant off the hook," said Roy Black, a Miami defense attorney whose clients have included Rush Limbaugh and William Kennedy Smith. "He has an obligation to people. He's the one leading the program, he has a responsibility to make sure it's run safely."
Any evidence of illnesses at prior Ray-led events, cover-up or lying about incidents and testimony that Ray ignored signs of medical distress would bode well for prosecutors, said former federal prosecutor Laurie Levenson, a law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
Even if he beats this rap, he'll face civil lawsuits with a lower burden of proof. As I think I said before, I suspect his days as a high-flying motivational guru are over.
For more on the subject, see James Ray's Perp Walk and Ray Arrested for Sweat Lodge Deaths.
Below: "Motivational speaker James Arthur Ray, foreground, is led into the Yavapai County jail in Camp Verde, Ariz. on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2010. Ray was arrested on three counts of manslaughter for the deaths of three people at a sweat lodge ceremony he led in October 2009." (AP Photo/Matt York)