WACO, Texas - A federal judge will make a key ruling today that could make or break the Branch Davidians' wrongful death case against the government for its handling of the siege at Waco in 1993.
U.S. District Judge Walter Smith Jr. must decide whether the seven jurors who were selected Monday can hear about warnings by FBI negotiators that the use of tanks could bring on trouble from the Davidians.
"That's the best evidence we have from the government witnesses in the whole case," said Jim Brannon, one of the lawyers for the Branch Davidians.
The evidence includes statements from Gary Noesner, who was the crisis negotiator at Waco in 1993, and Peter Smerick, an FBI criminal profiler. Noesner told the Justice Department that using tanks to dismantle the sect's complex would prompt a violent response from the Davidians.
Smerick told Jeff Jamar, the FBI's special agent in charge, "that the government could not send in the tanks because if they did so, children would die and the FBI would be blamed even if they were not responsible," according to a Justice Department interview after the siege.
Jamar ordered the use of converted tanks to insert tear gas into the complex on April 19, 1993, in an attempt to roust the Branch Davidians. During that action, parts of the main building collapsed. About 80 members of the sect died from gunshots and a fire that began six hours after the tear gas assault began.
The Branch Davidians' lawyers say Jamar's orders were prompted by FBI frustration that the siege had lasted 51 days. The sect's lawsuit seeks damages from the government for the relatives of those who died as well as some of those who survived.
Government lawyers have objected to the use of the advice given by the negotiators. They say it's irrelevant because federal law gave the commanders the discretion to handle the siege in a way they believed appropriate under the conditions. The law is designed to give federal officials the ability to act without the fear of being sued.
After Judge Smith rules on that evidence today, lawyers for each side will give opening statements to a jury of four women and three men picked Monday afternoon from a pool of 65 potential jurors. The jury includes three people from McLennan County, where Waco is located. The others come from a dozen other counties that make up the federal court's jurisdiction surrounding the central Texas city of about 110,000.
Not identified by name, the jurors were selected based on their answers to questions from Judge Smith alone. That they may have heard about the case did not automatically exclude them as long as they hadn't formed opinions. The judge excused those who said they could not be available for the four to six weeks the trial is expected to take.
The jury includes a homemaker, a teacher, a crime victim's assistance worker, a property manager, an aircraft electrician, a human resources worker and a military payroll accountant. Many of the jurors have children, but none has had a child who has died.
Judge Smith had asked if any of the jurors had the misfortune of "losing a child." Twenty of the Branch Davidians who died at the end of the siege were under the age of 16. Plaintiffs' lawyer Mike Caddell got the judge's approval Monday to show their photographs to the jury.
That was one of the points the plaintiffs won during a pretrial session Monday morning. They will also be allowed to include in their evidence the fact that the FBI's final assault plan had evolved over a period of weeks. The Branch Davidians contend that Jamar and other on-scene commanders decided to dismantle the sect's complex even after that tactic had been eliminated from early drafts of the plan.
WACO The first witness in the wrongful-death lawsuit brought by Branch Davidian survivors and family members testified today that she was unaware of any plans by sect members to ambush federal agents as they tried to serve a search warrant Feb. 28, 1993.
Rita Riddle, who was in the compound during the raid but left before the ensuing 51-day siege, said she did not know that federal agents would be arriving or armed when they pulled up in front of the Mt. Carmel compound.
When gunfire broke out, she said, she and others crouched on the floor in a hallway of the building to avoid being shot. Riddle testified she did know there were guns at the complex.
Four federal lawmen and six Davidians were killed during the initial raid. The siege ended in a deadly fire April 19, 1993, after FBI agents began a tear-gassing operation designed to end the standoff.
Opening statements began this morning with grim descriptions of the government's 1993 raid and siege on their compound.
Michael Caddell, lead counsel for the plaintiffs, decried the loss of children who were in the compound when fire engulfed the compound.
The children "never owned a gun, never fired a gun, never hurt anyone,'' Caddell repeatedly told jurors while showing photos from video of some of the children, who ranged in age from 2 to 17.
The trial follows years of legal wrangling over the deadly event. Some 80 people including at least 20 children younger than 16 and Davidian leader David Koresh were killed, some in the fire, others from gunshots.
U.S. Attorney Mike Bradford told the seven-person jury that ATF agents attempting to serve a legal search warrant ended up targets of gunfire. Five Davidians were convicted in 1994 of voluntary manslaughter in the agents' deaths.
"They were pinned down in a gunfight for their lives,'' Bradford said of the agents during opening statements. He also said FBI and ATF agents were not to blame for the deaths in the raid and fire.
"One thing is clear the Branch Davidians did set the fire that did burn the compound to the ground,'' he said.
The trial, expected to last about a month, will deal with four issues:
Whether Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms agents used excessive force in the initial raid on the Branch Davidian compound.
Whether government agents contributed to the fires that destroyed the compound.
Whether the government was negligent in withholding firefighting equipment.
And whether using tanks to push into the compound deviated from the operations plan approved by Attorney General Janet Reno.
"This case is about truth and responsibility,'' Caddell said in his opening statement. "The truth about what happened at Mount Carmel and the responsibility for what happened.''
In other testimony, Jaunessa Wendel, who was 8 on the day of the raid, said the compound where she and her family once lived was "like a big apartment, a community center.''
She told jurors that her mother, Jaydean Wendel, was fixing her hair in their room when gunfire shattered the window, spraying glass into her brothers' crib.
Wendel was struck by gunfire and killed. Natalie Nobrega, who was also a Mount Carmel resident and was 10 at the time of the raid, was expected to testify before the end of the day.
The Branch Davidians' wrongful-death suit against the FBI opened in court Tuesday. Here's TIME.com's primer as to what the jury will be hearing for the next five weeks Michael Caddell, the Branch Davidians' lead lawyer in the wrongful-death suit against the government that kicked off in court Tuesday, doesn't have any conspiracy theories. He isn't going to put the system on trial. He just wants to prove that the U.S. government - specifically, the two FBI field generals that led the 1993 raid on the Waco compound - made "bad decisions," and that people died from them. Here's a rundown on the showdown:
The plaintiffs: Don't expect any crying for David Koresh.
Caddell has long claimed that his opening arguments would kick off with the words "I am not here to defend David Koresh." He'd much prefer that the trial deal not with why the FBI siege began, but with how it was ended: with a plan whose tactics had critics within the law-enforcement agency, whose execution was less than perfect, and the end result of which was the fiery death of women and children as well as the bad guys. Who started the fire - the key point for conspiracy theorists, owing to the troubling government flip-flopping on the use of incendiary devices - will be merely a part of Caddell's larger picture of FBI bumbling.
The defense: The government scored a big procedural victory Monday when it was allowed to introduce transcripts of Branch Davidian conversations intercepted by FBI listening devices during the siege. In the transcripts - prepared by a government expert, conspiracy buffs will note - Branch Davidian leaders joke about their compound's lack of accessibility to the fire department, and David Koresh muses drily about an FBI agent's head exploding. Such are not the linchpins of an excessive-force case. Government lawyers are already on Judge Walter S. Smith's bad side for procedural hijinks in the trial's runup. They'll have to be embarrassed all over again about the incendiary devices. But if the case turns on the character of the victims, the name Koresh will take the government a long way.
The jury: Four women and three men, chosen in a surprisingly expeditious impaneling Monday. Since the government is the defendant, an actual jury was legally unnecessary but helpful in making it look as if justice is served (the alternative is a federal judge). A gym teacher, an electrician, a homemaker, an accountant, a secretary, a landlord and a retired Army sergeant - these seven have the task of sorting through 51 days of mounting frustrations and one of bloody mayhem, and assigning blame for an outcome that nobody was proud of.
The verdict: Whatever it is, it holds little promise for anyone. Caddell's scaled-down case has already irked the militia types - in conspiracy theory, there are no mistakes - and a guilty verdict will only whet their appetites further. Exoneration would do little to repair the Justice Department's damaged reputation. Afterward, the town of Waco will still be infamous, and wishing the Branch Davidians had picked someplace in Montana to make their stand. And no matter how hard Caddell and the Davidians try to turn a tragedy into a crime, the dead will still be dead, and men like David Koresh will still be just as responsible for that as any FBI agent with a hair trigger.
Austin, Texas - The Branch Davidian cult and the United States Government were pitted against each other in a Texas court yesterday, where survivors of the fiery finale to the Waco siege and relatives of those who died are demanding $675 million (£446 million) in damages.
Seven years after the deadliest law enforcement confrontation in US history ended in the deaths of some 80 cult members, the case is expected to shed light on whether the FBI can be held responsible for the tragedy.
The Waco compound went up in flames on April 19, 1993, after the FBI used teargas, projectiles and tanks to end the 51-day siege. David Koresh, the cult's leader, and most of his followers perished in the flames.
Government officials insist that the fire was mass suicide but more than 100 plaintiffs in the civil case claim that the outcome was the consequence of brutal negligence on the part of the FBI.
"This case is going to prove that our government can be held accountable for its abuse of power," Michael Caddell, the lawyer leading the wrongful death suit, said.
Last year, after six years of denials, the FBI admitted that potentially inflammable teargas canisters had been fired into the Mount Carmel compound before it caught fire. Mr Caddell is expected to argue that the fire was started by the canisters.
In an unusual move, Judge Walter Smith of Waco Federal Court began selecting a seven-strong "advisory" jury yesterday to help him to consider a case that would normally be settled by a judge alone. The trial is expected to last a month.
Thousands of pieces of evidence, including photographs and eyewitness accounts will be produced at the trial, which is expected to last at least a month.
The Government will introduce photographs showing the vast stockpile of weapons assembled by Mr Koresh and his followers as evidence of his aggressive intentions and determination to resist. Government lawyers will produce tapes of conversations that took place within the compound as evidence that Mr Koresh ordered the torching of the building.
"The tragedy that happened at Waco was brought about by David Koresh, who considered himself a Messiah [and] was predicting the end of the world would come about in a violent conflict with the government," Michael Bradford, the leading government lawyer, told The New York Times.
The Waco siege has become a defining moment in US cultural history, the source of countless conspiracies and the trigger for further violence. The Oklahoma City bombing was in revenge for the Waco siege, according to the principal bomber.
Judge Smith has said he will consider the issue of whether shots were fired into the compound by the FBI, dissuading cult members from fleeing, at a separate hearing in which he will deliberate alone. That point will be settled in August.
On Monday, June 19, 2000, a civil trial began to determine the government's culpability for the Waco massacre in 1993.
At least, that's how the media are portraying this wrongful death lawsuit against the government brought by survivors of the Branch Davidians who died in the 1993 raid on the Waco compound. But the truth is that we don't need a trial to establish the government's culpability. It has already been established through the investigations conducted following the event.
In seeking to escape liability, the government will no doubt try to portray the incident and the resulting 80 deaths as entirely the fault of cult leader David Koresh. And without question Koresh is partly to blame. But a significant degree of fault also lies with the government, which could have averted this tragedy and spared the lives of these mostly innocent people, including 19 children. Even a jury verdict in favor of the government will not alter that fact.
The Clinton administration has employed the same PR strategy with Waco as it has with other instances involving its malfeasance. It has sought to deflect criticism of its own conduct by demonizing its accusers. Law professor Jonathan Turley -- absolutely my favorite liberal on the planet -- puts the lie to this Clinton propaganda effort. "Waco horrified a great number of people in the mainstream. The Justice Department, however, tends to portray the Waco incident as largely a concern for fringe and extremist groups."
There have been some seemingly outrageous claims regarding the Waco incident. But the problem is that with this administration you just never know, because deceit is the taproot of so many of its activities.
One glaring example is that Janet Reno defiantly denied for six years that the FBI used incendiary devices at the siege. Only Waco wackos would conjure up such a fanciful idea. Right? Wrong. Last year Reno was humiliated with belated FBI admissions that they had in fact used pyrotechnic containers during the siege. So what else did they lie about? As it turns out, plenty.
Within the remaining space I just want to relate a few of the 1996 findings of two congressional subcommittees investigating the affair. These were not the rantings of paramilitary groups, but the conclusions of congressional committees after conducting 10 days of hearings, entertaining more than 100 witnesses and reviewing thousands of documents.
Concerning the initial raid (Feb. 28, 1993):
While the ATF had probable cause to obtain the arrest and search warrants, the affidavit filed in support of the warrants contained numerous false statements.
Koresh could have been arrested outside the compound (he often went jogging off premises); but The ATF was predisposed to a military-style raid as much as two months before their undercover operations began.
The ATF knew that Koresh had been tipped off about the initial raid and that he was likely to resist forcefully, but it deliberately proceeded with the raid anyway, instead of delaying it in accordance with its policy.
ATF raid commanders lied about the fact that they knew before the raid that Koresh had been tipped off and would likely be lying in wait for them.
The subcommittees also concluded that:
Instead of cooperating with the committees, the administration engaged in damage control from the beginning. The president himself characterized the hearings as an attack on law enforcement.
The ATF's investigation of the Branch Davidians was grossly incompetent.
Despite all of these findings and many more, the Justice and Treasury Departments issued detailed written reports exonerating all Department officials.
Who should we believe? The Clinton administration or the congressional subcommittees?
The subcommittees did not present a one-sided picture. In fact, they concluded that "the ultimate responsibility for the deaths of the Davidians and law enforcement agents lies with Koresh." But they also said that the ATF's reckless decision to proceed with the raid "more than any other factor, led to the deaths of the four ATF agents killed on February 28." And they found that "although physical and sexual abuse of children occurred, the final assault (on April 19) put the children at the greatest risk."
That's the understatement of the last century. A government does not protect children by engaging in activities that ultimately led to their deaths. We can figure that much out ourselves, no matter what the jury determines.
WACO, Texas (AP) - The $675 million wrongful-death case against the government over the 1993 disaster at Waco opened Tuesday with a lawyer showing pictures of the child victims, reciting their names and intoning: ``Never fired a gun. Never broke the law. Never hurt anyone.''
Michael Caddell, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, made the presentation to the jury that will consider whether the government used excessive force in the raid on the Branch Davidian compound.
About 80 members of the cult - including at least 20 children under 16 and Davidian leader David Koresh - were killed, some in the blaze that destroyed their compound, others from gunfire. The government contends that cult members started the fire and that no federal agents fired guns.
Caddell decried the deaths of the children, showing video of some of them while they lived at the compound.
``This case is about truth and responsibility,'' Caddell said in his opening statement. ``The truth about what happened at Mount Carmel and the responsibility for what happened.''
Four federal law officers and six Davidians were killed when agents tried to serve a search warrant on the compound at Mount Carmel, outside Waco, on Feb. 28, 1993, because of suspected gun violations. That began a 51-day siege at the compound that when after the FBI tear-gassed the wooden complex and the place went up in flames.
This lawsuit consolidates nine civil cases filed by survivors and relatives of the victims. The trial, expected to last about a month, will deal with four issues:
Whether Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents used excessive force in the initial raid.
Whether government agents helped caused the fires that destroyed the compound.
Whether the government was negligent by withholding firefighting equipment.
And whether using tanks to push into the compound deviated from a plan approved by Attorney General Janet Reno.
U.S. Attorney Mike Bradford, defending the government, told the six-person jury that ATF agents attempting to deliver the search warrants ended up targets of gunfire. Five Davidians were convicted in 1994 of voluntary manslaughter in the agents' deaths.
``They were pinned down in a gunfight for their lives,'' Bradford said during opening statements.
He also said FBI and ATF agents were not to blame for the deaths in the raid and siege, insisting that the fire was set inside the compound.
``One thing is clear - the Branch Davidians did set the fire that did burn the compound to the ground,'' he said.
The jury will act only as an advisory panel to the judge, who will deliver the verdict. Separately, the judge will take up the question of whether federal agents shot at members of the sect during the fiery end of the siege.
The first witness to testify Tuesday was Rita Riddle, who was in the compound during the initial raid but left before the ensuing siege. She said she was unaware of any plans by sect members to ambush federal agents as they tried to serve the search warrants. She said she knew there were guns in the building, however.
Another witness, Jaunessa Wendel, who was 8 at the time of the raid, testified that her mother, Jaydean, was fixing her hair in their room when gunfire shattered the window, spraying glass into her brothers' crib. Jaydean Wendel was killed.
``I know that I was very scared at that time. I didn't know what he (the Ranger) wanted from me. I tried to give him what he wanted from me,'' Jaunessa Wendel testified.
Another child living at the compound during the siege recalled how her bedroom was riddled with bullet holes after the initial raid.
``It was completely destroyed ... all my quilt coverings were full of holes. If I had been sleeping, I would not be here today,'' said Natalie Nobrega, now 18.
WACO, Texas, June 20 (Reuters) - The faces of 13 children who died in the fiery end of the Branch Davidian siege dominated the opening on Tuesday of a trial that pits sect survivors against the U.S. government over who is to blame for the 1993 conflagration that killed about 80 Davidians.
In opening arguments to the jury in a $675 million wrongful death lawsuit against the government by Branch Davidians and relatives of those killed, the plaintiffs' lead lawyer Michael Caddell played a video of the children and put their pictures on a board as he read out their names and ages.
The children, aged from one to 17, ``never owned a gun, never used a gun, never broke the law, never hurt anyone,'' Caddell said.
``I am not here to defend David Koresh,'' Caddell said, referring to the Branch Davidian leader who was among those killed when their central Texas compound went up in flames six hours after the FBI started a tear gas and tank assault to end a 51-day stand-off.
In a setback for the plaintiffs, U.S. District Judge Walter Smith ruled they could not use depositions and memos from FBI negotiators. The plaintiffs had argued the documents proved the FBI's own experts believed the Branch Davidians would surrender with time and that storming the compound could have deadly consequences.
The judge granted the government's request to bar the evidence under laws that protect federal agencies' so-called discretionary function, or their ability to make decisions without being second-guessed later in court.
Caddell acknowledged the Davidians had a large stockpile of guns and ammunition, including high-powered rifles and 156 assault rifles, many of them illegally converted from semi-automatic to automatic firing function.
But he argued the fatal conflict was the government's fault from the start, when a raid on the Mount Carmel compound sparked the stand-off. Four federal agents and six Davidians were killed in a gunbattle when the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms tried to arrest Koresh on weapons charges and search the compound.
Caddell also said evidence would show the FBI caused two of three fires that burned down the compound on April 19 by firing in tear gas and using tanks to tear holes in the walls in an effort to force an end to the stand-off on April 19.
Finally, the FBI was at fault for not having plans to fight a fire even though they should have know one could start, Caddell argued. The FBI on-scene commanders violated their orders with the tank assault and by lacking firefighting equipment, he charged.
Government lawyers countered that the Davidians under their leader David Koresh were an ``armed encampment'' with an apocalyptic vision that the end of the world would start with a violent conflict with the ATF.
U.S. Attorney Michael Bradford said evidence showed the Davidians chose to set fire to their own buildings instead of surrendering on the final day and that many of those inside, including Koresh and a number of children he had fathered with several women, died of gunshots from close range.
``All of the evidence is consistent with suicide,'' Bradford said.
Bradford said the FBI on-scene commander Jeffery Jamar and the chief of the hostage rescue team, Richard Rogers, did not violate an operations plan approved by Attorney-General Janet Reno by sending in two tanks to punch holes in the walls.
Caddell called as his first witness a woman who survived the fire.
Rita Riddle said she was a periodic visitor to the compound who came for Bible study vacations. She said she rarely saw anyone with a gun, knew nothing about a plot to ambush the ATF agents and never fired at them during the raid.
``Mount Carmel was a place where people form all over went to study the Bible. It was a pleasant place to be,'' she said.
The plaintiffs also called survivors Jaunessa Wendel, who was 8 when Mount Carmel burned, and Natalie Nobrega, who was 10 at the time. Both girls were injured and lost parents in the siege.
Bradford said the government planned to call witnesses including ATF and FBI agents involved in the original raid and the standoff.
The panel of six jurors and one alternate, whose names are being kept confidential because of the controversial nature of the case, will act as an advisory jury to U.S. District Judge Walter Smith. Smith can accept or overturn the jury's verdict in his final decision.
The trial is expected to last about one month.
Waco, FBI and the Branch Davidians: Updates
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