CAMP VERDE, Ariz. (AP) – The youngest of the witnesses in a self-help author’s manslaughter trial brought jurors back to the scene of a deadly sweat lodge ceremony Thursday, describing the conditions of three people who had to be dragged out of the sweltering structure after it had been emptied of other participants.
Testimony in James Arthur Ray’s case recently has focused on the criminal investigation and what factored into the deaths of James Shore, Kirby Brown and Liz Neuman. Ray has pleaded not guilty to three counts of manslaughter.
Sara Mercer’s testimony Thursday was reminiscent of some of the earliest witnesses, who noted a chaotic aftermath with dozens of participants in distress. Other participants emerged without any major problems.
Mercer’s parents tended to the fire used to heat the rocks, and she said helped set up water station, handed out towels and aided those who left the structure as a volunteer. The 19-year-old’ testimony was the last jurors will hear until May 26, after they return from a break in the trial due to a defense attorney’s out-of-town commitment.
Mercer became emotional as she told jurors how she and her mother found three people unconscious in the sweat lodge — two women and one man — and asked Ray whether they could lift up the coverings to get them out. “It would be sacrilegious, but if you have to, you can,” she quoted Ray as saying.
What Mercer saw brought her and the three of the victims’ family members in the audience to tears: A man believed to be Shore and a woman believed to be Brown were holding hands, their faces blue, eyes closed and weren’t breathing, Mercer said. The third participant was lying on her back, Mercer said.
Mercer said she also saw participants in levels of emotional and physical distress in 2008 during and after a sweat lodge ceremony Ray led at the same retreat center he rented for his October 2009 event, the Angel Valley Retreat Center.
The judge overseeing the trial has ruled that evidence can be presented in a limiting fashion. Prosecutors are trying to convince the jury that Ray had developed a pattern of recklessness and ignored signs of danger.
Ray’s attorneys say the deaths were a tragic accident and that investigators ignored other potential causes of death, such as toxins or chemicals. At least three medical experts will have testified that they could not exclude a chemical typically found in pesticides.
Defense attorney Tom Kelly questioned Mercer’s memory on cross-examination and pointed out that parts of her story have become more detailed. For instance, Kelly said that Mercer told authorities that her first indication that anything was wrong came when she saw a man whose lips were blue.
On the stand Thursday, Mercer said a man who burned his arm in the pile of heated rocks and another man who screamed that he was having a heart attack served as that indication.
“Are you having problems remembering everything that happened that day?” Kelly asked, as he pressed her for any recollection of what Ray said immediately following the ceremony.
“I don’t remember what he said,” Mercer responded.
Kelly also pointed out that Mercer said in previous interviews that Ray had conducted ceremonies at Angel Valley without problems until 2009, but she testified Thursday that one woman was violently shaking in 2008 and others were vomiting and exhausted in 2008.
Earlier Thursday, a Yavapai County sheriff’s sergeant testified that Ray told him another man named Ted was in charge of the sweat lodge. Defense attorney Luis Li asked Sergeant Frank Barbaro if he could have misunderstood Ray as talking about Mercer’s father, Ted Mercer, who was the fire tender.
Barbaro said he was clear in his question to Ray, and he believed Ray was clear in the response.
Prosecutors have said they have about 10 witnesses left to call but could end up calling more. The defense has anticipated a week to a week-and-a-half to present its witnesses. The trial that began in mid-February is scheduled to stretch into next month.
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