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Sweat Lodge Deaths: Self-help Author James Arthur Ray's Attorneys Argue For Probation

Sweat Lodge Deaths

FELICIA FONSECA   11/15/11 06:10 PM ET   AP

PRESCOTT, Ariz. — A veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder was on the brink of suicide when he reached out to a self-help author who was in the midst of a criminal trial. Jack Lane didn't expect to hear back from James Arthur Ray, but when he did, he says it saved his life.

"First and foremost, he thanked me for my service, said he had a passion in life for others and being of service," Lane testified Tuesday. "He was very kind, and he said that he would be willing to meet with me."

Lane is among a dozen witnesses whom Ray's defense team is counting on to persuade a judge that Ray should be spared from prison.

Three people died following a 2009 sweat lodge ceremony Ray led near Sedona, and he was convicted on three counts of negligent homicide. He is facing up to nine years in prison but also can receive probation when he's sentenced Friday.

Ray's attorneys hope several factors will weigh in their client's favor, including his good character and lack of a prior criminal history. They also point to Ray's remorse over the deaths, which he has maintained were a tragic accident, and his need to care for a mother with thyroid cancer and a father with dementia.

Prosecutors presented several witnesses last week in an effort to show Ray's events became progressively more dangerous, his ego was overblown, and he was fixated on earning money. The families of the victims – James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee; Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y; and Liz Neuman, 48, of Prior Lake, Minn. – have said Ray did nothing following the ceremony to make them believe he was concerned.

Some of them shook their heads in disbelief Tuesday as Ray wiped tears and took deep breaths during Lane's testimony and that of defense witness David McCall Jr. Ray showed little emotion during the four-month trial that played out in a Camp Verde courtroom.

Yavapai County Superior Court Judge Warren Darrow will consider testimony from both sides before deciding on a sentence. If Darrow gives Ray prison time, the defense has asked that the sentences be served concurrently and not start until after the appeals process.

Ray's attorneys contend the trial was tainted by prosecution errors and say there's a significant possibility he'll prevail on appeal. Darrow rejected at least nine defense requests for a mistrial or new trial in the case.

Lane, 43, said he sent Ray a message on Facebook, and that Ray responded the day Lane planned to commit suicide. The two later met in person, and Lane said Ray's words were encouraging.

The Los Angeles man said Ray told him to "use the experience I have and to apply it with worth and with integrity and honor.

Lane said the author also told him to "focus on the positive instead of all the negative that was surrounding me."

Earlier Tuesday, McCall credited Ray's teachings with leading him on a path to spirituality, a better relationship with his family and improved health. He turned to the judge and pleaded for leniency for the man he considered a friend.

The Cleveland, Texas, resident told of the guilt his son felt recently when a horse he had been exercising stumbled and died, using the story to show he believes the sweat lodge deaths were accidental.

"Sometimes people don't really have that control, that they make people die," he told Darrow. "Probation would be better."

Testimony resumes Wednesday.

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Filed by Michael McLaughlin  |