In November 2011, James Ray, a motivational speaker and author, was found guilty by a jury of negligent homicide in the deaths of several people who participated in a “sweat lodge” ceremony he led two years earlier. Ray was fined, ordered to pay restitution, and sentenced to two years in prison.
The case is now on appeal, and the defense continues to hammer away at the jury instructions given by the trial judge in the case. In addition, they say that the prosecution engaged in misconduct in several instances. Between the erroneous instructions and the wrongful conduct by the prosecutors, they say, Ray is entitled to an acquittal or a new trial.
The issue regarding the jury instructions centers on the judge’s definition, given to the jury, of the words “omission” and “duty.” The defense says that in order for a negligent homicide conviction to be upheld on the basis of an omission, the defendant must have been found to have violated a legal duty in failing to act. If you look at the judge’s instruction on these issues, it does appear a bit circular and unclear. For those of us who watched the case when it was tried, we also had some trouble trying to decipher exactly what this one man was supposed to have done to assist the victims, and why that burden fell on him as opposed to the company that owned the property or the one that organized the ceremony.
The defense also points out what they claim are several instances of inappropriate conduct on the part of the prosecution, including, among other things:
- An allegedly secret meeting between the prosecution and medical examiners attempting to push for a conclusion that the victims died of heat related issues, and not from toxins emitted in the sweat lodge; and
- Telling the defense that a proposed witness, who would have testified that the sweat lodge design was at fault, had not prepared a report, when in fact he had.
The appeal raises issues that are by no means technicalities. They go to the essence of the charge against Ray: first, what act or omission on his part was wrongful; and second, whether and in what manner did the alleged act or omission cause the deaths of the victims. We’ll have to wait and see how the Court of Appeals deals with these issues.
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