WACO Sitting in his pickup on a rural road near the Branch Davidian site, J.D. Middleton says he'd hate to be on the jury deciding whether the government was at fault for the tragedy that left more than 80 sect members dead.
"I wouldn't know which way to go," he said, calling the followers "addicts of religion."
"There were errors made on both sides," he said.
Jury selection starts Monday in the wrongful-death lawsuit brought against the government by families and survivors of the 1993 siege near Waco. Many residents say an impartial jury can easily be impaneled because most of them lost interest in the case long ago.
"Ninety percent of the people could care less," said Mr. Middleton, who lives nearby. "They are indifferent. There's people in Waco that know less about this than people out-of-state."
At a downtown Waco finance office, Kimberly Everett is one of many who say they wish it would all go away. Sometimes callers to her office make comments about Waco.
"They say, 'Oh, you're from Wacko.' We just laugh about it. Or they'll ask if we have any new cults coming in," she said. "Waco gets a bad rap for it."
But Ms. Everett, like others, said she, too, thinks a fair panel can be picked from the Central Texas region.
"Nobody is really pro or con on it, so it wouldn't be hard to find an impartial jury," she said.
Some aren't convinced. Houston attorney Dick DeGuerin, who briefly represented sect leader David Koresh and met with him during the siege to try to persuade him to surrender, said he is "bothered a lot" that jurors will be drawn from the Waco .
areaHe noted that U.S. District Judge Walter Smith decided to move the criminal trial arising from the standoff to San Antonio because he feared that potential jurors in Waco might be too heavily influenced by publicity surrounding the incident that attracted worldwide attention.
"It really shouldn't be tried there," he said. "The people of Waco and that area are subjected wherever they go to ridicule, humiliation. When you say the word 'Waco,' it means government overreaching. It means religious nuts. It means the terrible things that happened. I think the community is under tremendous pressure to redeem themselves by blaming the Davidians."
Fifty potential jurors will be summoned to Judge Smith's courtroom in Waco. Both sides predict that a jury of six and one alternate will begin hearing evidence by Tuesday. Federal juries hearing civil cases comprise six members, instead of 12.
Both sides will use jury consultants to pick prospective jurors. Lead plaintiff's attorney Michael A. Caddell is using the same consultant used in the San Antonio criminal trial.
Residents say they wish that the final chapter could be written on this seven-year saga.
"Everybody looks at it like, 'Oh boy, here we go again,'" said Larry Holze, a spokesman for the city of Waco. "The reality is that it's part of Waco's history. ... There is no reason to deny that, even though we had nothing to do with it and it wasn't in our [city] limits."
Residents say they know the circus is back when media vans begin to roll into town.
The U.S. Marshals Service has received requests from 35 news organizations for credentials to cover the trial. Authorities are planning for extra security at the courthouse, and the city has established a two-block area behind the federal building on Eighth Street and Franklin Avenue to accommodate media vans, trailers and satellite trucks.
"There's more interest among the media than the people here," said David Smith, a retired Waco city manager.
"We had the whole circus out at the compound. Then we had the civil cases brought by the families of the agents who died in the first raid," said Baylor University law professor Bill Underwood, who was one of the lawyers representing the families in that litigation. "Then we've had the endless series of property disputes among the remaining Davidians. We've had the criminal prosecutions. And now this."
But he said he thinks trying the case before a group of Central Texas residents is important.
"You've got a group of citizens alleging a pretty serious abuse of power by their government. That abuse and allegations of abuse are going to be tried in open court," Mr. Underwood said. "The government is going to be called and required to explain its acts. I think that it's important that a portion of this will occur in front of a group of citizens."
But Mr. DeGuerin said he doesn't think Waco is the right place to do it.
He noted that a state court jury recently asked to decide ownership of the land where the standoff occurred refused to award title to the surviving Branch Davidians and their church.
"The property, rightly or wrongly, belongs to the Davidian church. A Waco jury said we're not going to give it to anybody," he said. "The only thing that you can analyze out of that was that the jurors were anti-anything that seems to be in favor of Branch Davidians because of the ridicule that the Davidian incident has brought upon the whole community and the city."
But finding a fair jury could be difficult anywhere, said a 50-year-old Garland man, who did not want his name used.
"I believe everybody has formed an opinion now," he said, standing outside the city's tourist center. "If it had not been for the fact of the weapons on the compound, I think the government should have left him alone."
He said he and his wife were skipping the Branch Davidian site on their trip; instead, they were going to the Dr Pepper museum.
"I don't care to go to a death place," he said.
But others do. Curiosity continues to bring visitors to where the compound once stood.
Walter Dulock lives across the road from a memorial honoring the four U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents who also died at the compound in the battle with sect members that started the standoff. He often directs travelers to the site.
"It's old news," Mr. Dulock said. "But it's never going to die."
WACO, Texas, June 19 (Reuters) - A federal judge on Monday picked a six-member jury to advise him as he hears a $675 million civil lawsuit brought by Branch Davidians and their families charging that federal agents caused the deaths of 80 cult members in a fiery siege seven years ago.
The jury, consisting of four women and two men, plus one alternate, will hear the case and advise Federal Judge Walter Smith on his ruling.
Smith will make the final decisions in the civil case that claims government agents forced the 51-day-long standoff with Branch Davidian leader David Koresh and then caused the fires that destroyed the compound.
The judge ordered that the names of the jurors in the high profile case be kept confidential and set opening statements in the case for Tuesday. The jurors were picked from a pool of 60 and include a social worker, a homemaker and an elementary school teacher.
No juror was asked to state opinions about either the government or the Branch Davidians but all were asked if they could be impartial and vowed that they could.
At issue in the trial is the question, still hotly debated in America, of whether the FBI or the Branch Davidians are responsible for the deaths of cult leader Koresh and his followers.
The plaintiffs, numbering around 100, are Branch Davidians who survived the siege and relatives of those who died on April 19, 1993, when the rural compound went up in flames as FBI agents using armoured vehicles and tear gas tried to end a 51-day standoff.
U.S. Attorney Michael Bradford told reporters outside of court, ``When the jury sees what really happened, it will come to the conclusion that Mr Koresh and the Branch Davidians were responsible for what happened on April 19.''
But plaintiffs attorney Michael Caddell disagreed, telling reporters after the hearing that if the judge allows evidence in from FBI negotiators at the scene, the jury will side with his clients.
``I believe that tomorrow the judge will rule that the jury can see documents from the negotiators so that the jury can understand that the very thing that happened on April 19 was the very thing the FBI's own people warned about.''
In court, Caddell had told the judge that testimony in depositions and memos from the time of the siege showed that FBI negotiators believed they could get more Branch Davidians to surrender with time and also warned that storming the compound could have potential deadly consequences.
Before jury selection began on Monday, lawyers for both sides argued for several hours before Smith over what evidence and testimony will be allowed in the trial, expected to last about a month.
Sherry Burjo, daughter of Floyd Houtlan, who died in the fire, told reporters before the proceedings began that cult members were being demonised by the government.
``My father was a sweet, loving man. These were decent people. ... They have stained my father's name. I want justice for those who deserve it,'' she said.
She added that Davidians were unwilling to flee their compound out of fear of what the FBI outside would do to them. ``They were too terrified to come out,'' she told reporters outside the court.
Seven years after the conflagration at Mount Carmel, the lingering questions over what exactly happened at the Branch Davidian compound are about to fall under the national microscope once again. This time, the U.S. government is on trial. Beginning today in a civil trial in Waco, Texas, federal authorities will have to answer accusations that the alleged reckless tactics and negligence of its agents caused the deaths of some 80 people on April 19, 1993, at the fiery conclusion of the Davidian standoff. "This is not going to be a referendum on David Koresh or the Davidians' religious or sexual practices or whether they should earn some good citizenship award," said Michael Caddell, the lead attorney for 15 survivors and 85 relatives of the dead. "This case is about the government's abuse of power in a situation where you've got dozens of innocent children and women involved, and I think most people have a pretty easy time separating that," Caddell said. Federal authorities see it differently. Justice Department attorneys will seek to show that the Davidians alone bear responsibility for what happened that day outside Waco - first by killing and wounding federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents in a botched raid in February 1993, then by setting their complex ablaze and engaging in a mass suicide after a 51-day standoff. The government's legal team is headed by U.S. Attorney Mike Bradford of Beaumont, chief prosecutor for the eastern district of Texas. Bradford says that, while plaintiffs will try to keep the focus on the government's actions, he intends to remind the jury of Koresh's incendiary behavior - his stockpiling of weapons at the compound, his "messiah" complex and his belief that the apocalypse was near. It was Koresh, he said, who ambushed the ATF agents during the initial February raid, killing four and wounding more than 20 others. "The evidence is clear that the Davidians initiated the gunfire and that ATF was responding in self-defense," Bradford said. As for the lack of emergency response once the fatal fire broke out 51 days later, Bradford said authorities made the legitimate decision not to send firefighters into a situation that might expose them to gunfire. And with the flames spreading so quickly, "there was really little or no realistic chance of fighting the fire," he said. The prosecutor also noted that opposing attorneys have backed off their earlier claims that federal authorities, in effect, killed the Davidians. "The focus (of the trial) now has shifted to really just second-guessing some decisions that were made," Bradford said. After years of congressional hearings, investigations, documentaries and a criminal trial that led to the convictions of eight Davidians on gun charges, interest in the tragedy had largely died down by last year. Then came new disclosures and an acknowledgment from the Justice Department that, despite years of denials, FBI agents had fired pyrotechnic munitions at a bunker near the main compound just hours before the blaze started that final day. Government officials insist that the pyrotechnics had nothing to do with the start of the fire. But the acknowledgment that they were used gave new motivation to those who charge that Koresh and his followers were murdered.
Waco, FBI and the Branch Davidians: Updates
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