Defense attorneys for James Arthur Ray have made another attempt to have the trial, scheduled to start this week, moved out of Yavapai County.
Ray, 53, a self-help author and motivational speaker, is charged with three counts of manslaughter stemming from deaths that took place at a special sweat lodge ceremony at Angel Valley Retreat Center near Sedona in October that was part of a $10,000 a head weekend event.
Lizbeth Neuman, 49, of Michigan, Kirby Brown, 38, of New York and James Shore, 40, of Wisconsin, died after exposure to conditions inside the sweat lodge, a large tentlike structure that was heated to high temperatures.
Official trial proceedings are set to begin Wednesday, Feb. 16, in Yavapai County Superior Court at the courthouse in Camp Verde.
In a motion filed earlier this month, Ray’s defense team argues that excessive media coverage of the event and pretrial proceedings has made it extremely difficult to find an impartial jury in Yavapai County.
Much of the defense’s argument rests on opinions given about the case on questionnaires sent to potential jurors.
“Questionnaire after questionnaire reflects community members who have been steeped in unfavorable media portrayals of Mr. Ray and have formed a firm opinion of his guilt,” the motion reads. “Indeed, the defense submits — and will show … that there has never been an Arizona case with the depth and intensity of prejudice involved here.”
The defense acknowledges that some of the media coverage of Ray’s case has been national in scope, but that the immediate Yavapai County community has had more exposure to media coverage and could be additionally affected by news about the case since it happened locally.
The defense goes on to argue that Maricopa County would “offer a much greater chance of a fair trial by an impartial jury” thanks in part to having a population 20 times the size of Yavapai County from which to draw jurors.
The court dismissed an earlier attempt to change venues last year, but the defense argues that “inflammatory and inaccurate media coverage” has continued unabated since the sweat lodge incident.
This coverage, the motion states, resulted in questionnaires from people who believe Ray is a con artist, among other things.
To help back up the argument for a change of venue, the defense submitted an affidavit from Norma Silverstein, Ph.D., a vice president of research and development at Vinson and Company, a Los Angeles firm “engaged in the business of understanding human behavior and the social and psychological processes involved in a jury trial.”
The company is assisting Ray pro bono, according to the document.
Silverstein and her company conducted a three-day survey in early February to measure public opinion concerning Ray in Maricopa and Yavapai counties.
Of those interviewed, 94 percent of Yavapai County residents sampled through jury questionnaires said they had heard of the case, compared with 72 percent in Maricopa County, reached by telephone.
Just over 36 percent of Yavapai County residents said media coverage “would” interfere with their ability to be fair and impartial, compared to just over 27 percent in Maricopa County.
“The level of vitriol expressed by potential jurors in Yavapai County is at a level I have not seen in prior cases,” Silverstein wrote. “Emotionally laden descriptions of the defendant go far beyond simply leaning toward believing him to be guilty.”
Barring a change of venue or other circumstance, the jury selection process is expected to begin Wednesday in the courtroom of Yavapai County Superior Court Judge Warren Darrow.