Originally Published: February 1, 2017 6 a.m.
CAMP VERDE – James Arthur Ray can now vote, but Yavapai County Superior Court Judge Michael R. Bluff denied his application to set aside judgment of guilt of negligent homicide charges that involve three people who died during his 2009 Sedona sweat-lodge ceremony.
Not enough time has passed since Ray’s release from prison less than four years ago, the judge said Tuesday.
Angel Valley Retreat
Ray was released in July 2013 after completing 85 percent of his two-year sentence for the negligent homicide deaths at Angel Valley Retreat Center in 2009.
One man and two women of Ray’s dozens of participants died in the overheated sweat lodge used in the culmination of Ray’s “Spiritual Warrior” self-improvement retreat. While acquitted of two more serious manslaughter charges, Ray was convicted of negligent homicide and ordered to serve two-year terms for each of the three deaths, served concurrently.
Kirby Brown, 38, of New York, James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee, and Liz Neuman, 49, of Prior Lake, Minn., died. Eighteen others were treated for injuries.
Petition to restore civil rights
Defense attorney Thomas Kelly asked the court to restore Ray’s civil rights, with the exception of the right to carry a firearm. Kelly said his client met all criteria for restoration.
Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk said the state did not object, but wanted to hear opinions of victims. A few victims were present in court, and one was present telephonically. None objected to restoring Ray’s right to vote. One victim opposed the idea of Ray having the right to hold public office.
Bluff ordered restoration of Ray’s civil rights, with the exception of owning a fire arm, as Kelly requested.
Request to vacate conviction
Kelly explained that his client wants to vacate his conviction so that international travel can be allowed.
Ray addressed the court and apologized to the victims. “Words fall short,” he said. Ray said the State took full measures, and acknowledged that his conviction will not be eradicated. Ray is continuing his work, he said, and has more opportunities to help people.
He is looking to travel internationally, and said that Canada is “stringent.” He has a Canadian lawyer, he said, who is helping him to get across the border, but it could take up to eight years. Ray said he did everything required by law to get his life together. He asked the judge to look beyond emotion, but at the law itself.
Ray said he is “perplexed” as to why the State is going back and bringing up issues that the jury said were not issues. He asked the judge what he could do to be granted this, saying he has always been a law-abiding citizen.
With limited time for the hearing, Polk requested that the victims speak before she did. All unanimously urged the judge not to grant the motion.
The mother of a woman who died during the ceremony addressed the court as well. She noted that Ray refers to the event as accidental. He is not a victim of a tragedy, but the architect of tragedy, she said of Ray. He has no license nor credentials, she added.
Ray is not a religious leader nor a psychologist; he’s a capitalist, she said, noting that the ceremony was unregulated, had no risk-management plan, and was a perversion to a Native American ceremony.
That is why she and a few others created a self-help organization to protect others.
If he doesn’t understand his actions caused this trauma, how can he work in this arena, she asked. She begged Bluff not to grant the motion.
The daughter of a victim spoke telephonically, and said her father trusted Ray. “Clearing his record” to teach again was not fair to her or other families, she explained. The teenage victim described her life without a father. She said Ray can apologize, but can never understand and grasp what she is going through.
She said it made her sick that Ray is going back to what he did that resulted in three deaths.
The sister of a victim took opposition to the motion that described the felonies as non-dangerous, non-repetitive. She said Ray should still be in prison, and isn’t remorseful. He received a nominal sentence, she said. She said he bastardized the traditions of Native Americans.
Another victim told the court Ray can’t take away what he took from the families. He said that Ray built his business on lies. He calls it a tragic accident, the victim said of Ray, but it was no accident, the victim emphasized. The victim brought up the CNN documentary “Enlighten US – The Rise and Fall of James Arthur Ray” in which Ray tells his side of the story.
There is an elephant hiding in this room, the victim said, and it is money. The reason Ray wants to set guilt aside is so he can go to Canada and make more money, the victim said. He’s not a guru or teacher; he’s a capitalist, he reiterated from another victim.
The victim emotionally pleaded to the judge that he neither ignore nor turn his back on the victims and family members who live with the pain of the decisions of Ray.
Polk addressed the court, and noted that the victims had traveled from Washington, D.C., New York, and Colorado. Other victims were unable to attend the court hearing but have written statements, all opposing the motion. She said she is not going to focus on the emotion, but rather the law.
She also made reference the CNN documentary, and said she watched it twice. To make a decision, she needed to know what he had learned, and is the public safe.
The answer to both is “disturbing and chilling,” she said. Polk read a few quotes that Ray said in the documentary that she felt backed up her sentiment.
She told the court the rights of the victims should be respected. Their consensus is unanimous, and the state agrees.
Kelly attempted to correct what had been said earlier, saying the motion doesn’t erase the conviction from history.
Bottom line, the judge said, not enough time has passed. The wounds of the victims have not healed yet, if they ever will, he added. He said he is not comfortable granting the motion.
With vacated-conviction hearings, Judge Bluff said he looks at an extended period of time of law-abiding behavior after release. However, in this case, it has been less than four years since Ray has been released from prison.
He said he can’t give Ray a number, but if an application is filed in the future, he will then make another decision.