"Judge delays start of Davidians' suit - He cites time needed to transport evidence"
by Lee Hancock and David Jackson (" The Dallas Morning News, September 17, 1999)
A federal judge has delayed the start of the Branch Davidians' wrongful-death lawsuit, stating Wednesday that the task of transferring the federal government's massive collection of evidence to Waco makes a mid-October trial impossible.
In a three-page order, U.S. District Judge Walter Smith also confirmed that the Justice Department has ended weeks of legal skirmishes and submitted to his effort to take control of all government documents and evidence related to the Branch Davidians' 1993 standoff with authorities.
"The physical transfer of control of all of this evidence will take longer than originally anticipated by the court," stated the order cancelling the Oct. 18 trial date.
Both sides in the case have been petitioning the court for months to delay the lawsuit. The judge's order indicated that it could take a month to set a new trial date, but he indicated that he would not accept a government bid to postpone the case until next fall.
Lawyers for the Branch Davidians have asked to start the trial early next year.
Justice Department officials welcomed the delay, noting that the task of rounding up and transferring every document and piece of physical evidence from every federal agency could take weeks or more.
Justice Department officials are particularly sensitive to the need for a "thorough sweep" because the judge has already exhibited frustration and anger with government officials in recent weeks. "They don't want to incur the judge's wrath," said one official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Michael Caddell, lead lawyer for the Branch Davidians, said the delay was expected and welcome, particularly in light of the recent wave of revelations about the government's conduct.
"I always thought that Judge Smith would give us the time we needed to properly prepare the case for trial, and I think what he's done is very reasonable," he said.
Controversy over the 1993 standoff near Waco resurfaced last month when a former FBI official acknowledged that the agency had used pyrotechnic tear-gas devices when it assaulted the compound on April 19, 1993.
Federal officials had maintained for six years that the government used nothing capable of starting a fire when the tank and tear-gas assault ended with a fire that consumed the Davidian compound. Leader David Koresh and more than 80 followers died.
Government officials continue to insist that the fire was deliberately set by the Davidians.
But lawyers for surviving Davidians and families of the dead have alleged that government negligence or actions directly caused the April 19 tragedy. They have alleged that the government even dispatched shooters to spray the compound with gunfire and keep the sect members inside their flimsy wooden building, a charge that government officials angrily deny.
The government's awkward admission that pyrotechnic tear-gas canisters were used on April 19 has drawn attention to the lawsuit. Committees in both houses of Congress have vowed full investigations, and Attorney General Janet Reno last week named former Sen. John Danforth, R-Mo., to lead an independent inquiry into the government's actions in Waco.
On Wednesday, aides to Mr. Danforth indicated that they will ask Judge Smith on Thursday to delay any formal questioning, or depositions, of witnesses in the civil case, said officials in Texas and Washington.
Attorneys for the Davidians had been scheduled to begin a round of depositions next week in Washington with members of the FBI's hostage rescue team and former FBI Agent Jeff Jamar, the bureau's commander in Waco.
Mr. Caddell said he would be willing to postpone the start of depositions "for a couple of weeks.
"We certainly want to cooperate with the independent investigator," he said.
But Judge Smith's ruling Wednesday specifically instructed both sides to begin the process of depositions and other discovery actions that did not require access to the evidence being surrendered to his court.
The order also cautioned that the transfer of all government evidence to Waco did not mean that government attorneys will be forced to surrender their trial preparation documents, items that could reveal such sensitive information as defense strategy.
The judge also warned that the plaintiffs would not be given "blanket access" to the huge trove of evidence being sent to Waco.
But the order also places government lawyers in the position of having to petition the court to gain access to their own documents and evidence.
Under the court's order Wednesday, Justice Department lawyers will be given access to the government's evidence trove only under court supervision.
Justice Department lawyers initially fought that, arguing in a motion last month that the judge's bid to control all evidence was legally unwarranted and posed "a substantial burden."
But the judge issued an order Sept. 2, repeating his demand, ordering government lawyers to surrender all Davidian evidence by month's end or face an Oct. 1 contempt hearing.
Waco, FBI and the Branch Davidians: Updates
CESNUR reproduces or quotes documents from the media and different sources on a number of religious issues. Unless otherwise indicated, the opinions expressed are those of the document's author(s), not of CESNUR or its directors.
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