The complex wrongful death lawsuit filed against the government by Branch Davidian survivors will play out in the courtroom like four mini-trials.
After U.S. District Judge Walter S. Smith Jr. ruled last week that the trial, which is set to begin Monday, will not include allegations that government agents fired into David Koresh's Mount Carmel compound as the siege was coming to a deadly end, that left four issues to be decided.
Those issues will be presented one at a time to the jury, instead of the often-haphazard and more random order in which juries hear evidence in many civil cases. After the live testimony, videotaped depositions and cross-examinations are complete on one issue, the parties in the suit will move on to the next.
The judge approved the manner of trial presentation last week on a proposal by lead plaintiffs' attorney Mike Caddell.
"I think that's an excellent way to present things," Smith said during a pretrial conference.
"The judge is going to let us present the issues one at a time," Caddell said. "That lets us present deposition testimony and live witnesses all on a single topic, and I think this will present the evidence in a very clear and understandable and organized fashion for the jury. The government hates it because they want the jury not to understand what happened. They want to talk about what a bad person David Koresh was and that's their case in a nutshell."
U.S. Attorney Mike Bradford of Beaumont, who is co-lead counsel for the government, didn't object strenuously to Caddell's proposal at last week's pretrial conference. He did, however, suggest that the format would require more organization from government attorneys in the case.
"I actually think that it will be more difficult to present it that way," Bradford said.
Attorneys will continue to wrangle over pretrial issues with the judge Monday morning before a panel of about 50 prospective jurors comes in after the lunch break.
Smith has told attorneys that he will question the potential jurors himself and likely not allow the lawyers to ask follow-up questions during the jury-selection process known as voir dire . The judge denied a request from Caddell for jurors to fill out a two-page questionnaire about themselves and their feelings about the case. Smith also said that he is considering allowing the seven-member advisory jury to remain anonymous.
Caddell said he expects opening statements in the case to begin Tuesday morning. The trial is expected to last about four weeks.
The jury will be asked to decide:
* whether Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents fired indiscriminately and used other excessive force on Feb. 28, 1993, when they stormed Mount Carmel in an attempt to arrest Koresh on weapons charges.
* whether the FBI's tear-gas assault deviated from Attorney General Janet Reno's authorized plan and caused the premature demolition of the building.
* whether the government was negligent by not having a plan to fight the fire in which Koresh and 75 followers died.
* whether the government contributed to the cause and spread of the fire.
Smith, not the jury, will decide the amount of damages, if any, the government will pay if the government is found to be liable in any of the allegations.
Besides Bradford, the government is represented by Marie Hagen, an assistant U.S. Attorney from Washington, D.C., and a host of other Justice Department attorneys. Bradford has said that no more than four government attorneys will be seated at the counsel table during the trial at any one time. He added that the attorneys will alternate at the counsel table depending on what area of dispute is being considered.
Caddell will be joined at the counsel table by his wife, Cynthia Chapman, and attorneys for other plaintiffs, former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark of New York and James Brannon of Houston.
The first three rows on either side of the courtroom will be reserved for members of the media. The remaining seats will be available on a first-come, first-served basis. The courtroom holds about 95 spectators.
Caddell said he doesn't expect many of the Branch Davidian survivors, many of whom live in foreign countries, to attend the trial on a daily basis.
"We will have a few," Caddell said. "Most of our people are very private people and this was a major tragedy for them. They don't want to be exposed to the press and they don't want to be scrutinized by a bunch of people. I talked with a client from England (Friday) morning about that very thing and she just didn't want to be here to relive all that pain. She lost two children there."
Security will be heavy at the federal courthouse. Officials are preparing for an onslaught of media and, possibly, Davidian sympathizers to be in Waco for the trial.
Officials are limiting access to the building to the front door on Franklin Avenue, and those entering the building will pass through a metal detector, which is common in any federal courthouse.
A lot is at stake in the Branch Davidians' wrongful-death lawsuit against the government that starts Monday in Waco.
It's not just about money, although the plaintiffs surviving Davidians and the relatives of those who died at Mount Carmel are asking for $675 million.
The government stands to lose the most of the two parties.
A verdict in favor of the Davidians would mean a federal judge, and not just critics, had found the government's actions at Mount Carmel to be negligent.
"This particular civil trial could have a much greater impact on government conduct in the future than a criminal case would," said Houston attorney Mike Caddell, lead attorney for the plaintiffs. "A jury verdict against the government would be a dramatic reminder of whom they're supposed to work for.. They had more tanks at Mount Carmel than the Marines had in Somalia. It's true. It doesn't matter what David Koresh did. The American people don't expect innocent women and children to be assaulted and tear-gassed."
Michael Bradford, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Texas and government co-counsel for the civil trial, did not return phone calls requesting an interview.
A government win could lend credence to its version of events seven years ago. However, it won't end the speculation about what happened at Mount Carmel, according to Mark Swett, a Portland, Maine man whose extensive collection of Davidian siege documents has made him a resource for researchers and programs such as "Frontline."
Swett, who works for an insurance company, is writing a book, David Koresh and the Untold Story of the Branch Davidians , based largely on the FBI "bug" tapes from Mount Carmel. The listening-device tapes changed Swett's mind on who's to blame for the fire that led to the deaths of Koresh and 75 followers. Swett thinks they show the Davidians purposely set the fires.
"Should the Davidians lose the civil trial, the controversy will still go on," Swett said. "The only thing that can stop the endless speculation will be a complete investigation utilizing all the evidence. We missed that opportunity with the 1995 congressional hearings."
Davidian Sheila Martin sees the civil trial as a chance for redemption for her family, not herself.
Martin left Mount Carmel during the Davidian siege to care for her handicapped son, James. Two other children, Daniel and Kimberly, came with Martin. Her husband Wayne, a Waco attorney educated at Harvard, and four other children stayed. They all died on April 19, 1993.
"I won't say that we don't want our elderly and our children taken care of," Martin said, "but the names of our family who died there, the truth about why they were there, those things are important, too."
Whether a courtroom is really the proper forum for the truth to come out about an event like Mount Carmel is debatable. Attorney Dick DeGuerin, who represented Koresh during the siege, doesn't think it is. But he also doesn't see a better candidate stepping forward either.
"I'd like to see a public forum where the public had a right to make a decision based on all the evidence without regard to politics," DeGuerin said. "But it looks like this is as close as we're going to get to the truth.. Clearly, decisions in Congress are made along political lines and not along lines of what's just."
The civil trial will examine four areas of potential government liability regarding 81 of the Davidians who died at Mount Carmel.
* Did agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms fire indiscriminately at the Davidians on Feb. 28, 1993 when five group members died?
* Did the FBI demolish Mount Carmel prematurely and not in accordance with U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno's directive?
* Was the government negligent by not having a plan to fight a fire?
* And did the government contribute to the cause and spread of the fire?
Whether the government fired shots at the Davidians and kept some of them from escaping the fire will be decided by U.S. District Judge Walter S. Smith Jr. at a later date.
Plaintiffs are suing the government under the Federal Claims Tort Act. Theoretically, the government can be held to the same standards as an individual when it comes to negligence.
"Under general tort law, the way we determine if a defendant is responsible is to ask if the defendant did what was reasonable and prudent under the circumstances at the time," said Bill Trail, a professor at the Baylor University Law School. "The attorney for the plaintiff will argue that the facts show there were two reasonable ways to do this and the defendant picked a third. The attorney for the defendant will argue there were three reasonable ways to do it."
There is one big difference, however, between suing the government and suing an individual.
"It's the doctrine of sovereign immunity," said Bill Underwood, the Leon Jaworski professor of practice and procedure at Baylor's law school. "The government can't be sued unless it consents to be sued. That's the most fundamental difference between the government, individuals and corporations."
And government officials, under the law, are protected from being sued for their discretionary decisions decisions left to an official's judgment.
Caddell, though, will argue that FBI officials at Mount Carmel changed the official plan to force the Davidians out of Mount Carmel, starting to demolish it more than a day and a half ahead of schedule. Changes were only permitted in the event of an emergency according to the government plan, Caddell said.
"If Jeffrey Jamar and Richard Rogers deviated from that plan and people got hurt, the government is liable," Caddell said. "It's not a complex case from that standpoint."
Jamar was the lead FBI agent at Mount Carmel, while Rogers headed the Hostage Rescue Team.
Attorneys predict the Davidian civil trial could last a month or more.
Mike McNulty, a producer of "Waco: Rules of Engagement," also made a prediction. He believes the Davidians will win a negligence award albeit a minor one.
"I prognosticate a wrist slap that won't get to the heart of the matter," McNulty said. "It won't have to do with any of the allegations that would be seen as an overt act against the Davidians. I don't think the judge nor the special prosecutor nor Congress has the stomach for that kind of confrontation. ... It will be like the sponge of vinegar given to Christ to slack his thirst. That's what it will be like."
Swett, who began collecting records related to the siege while it was happening, isn't predicting who will win.
He finds it hard to lay fault more at one doorstep than the other, seeing what happened at Mount Carmel as a clash between two sides deaf to the other..
"The Davidians could not get beyond their Biblical convictions even in the reality of serious charges including the deaths of federal agents," Swett said. "The FBI was not able to overcome the theology of David Koresh. One side lived in the spiritual realm, and the other in the real world. In the end, those worlds collided with devastating effects."
HOUSTON, June 18 -- For years, the Branch Davidian wrongful-death lawsuit seemed unlikely to amount to anything more than paper. The case file is about as thick as 25 metropolitan phone books, a tower of motions and countermotions once regarded as a monument to futility by those who doubted that the case would ever reach trial.
But six years after the lawsuit was filed, the trial is scheduled to open on Monday in Federal District Court in Waco, Tex. Once criticized as a bundle of anti-government conspiracies, the lawsuit is now being taken very seriously. At its core lies the fundamental question of whether the government was negligent in the deaths of more than 80 Branch Davidians on April 19, 1993, when the sect's Mount Carmel compound near Waco burned to the ground.
"This case is going to prove that our government can be held accountable for its abuse of power," said Michael Caddell, the lead lawyer for the Branch Davidian survivors and many of the relatives of those who died.
"And that's what happened on April 19. It was an abuse of power."
The format of the trial will be unusual, because there will essentially be two trials. Judge Walter S. Smith announced that he would impanel an "advisory" seven-person jury to help him decide the case. The judge could overrule the jury.
Last week Judge Smith said he would separate the most contentious issue -- whether F.B.I. agents fired gunshots into the compound on April 19 -- into a separate hearing to be decided later by him alone.
The prospect of a jury trial apparently unnerved the Justice Department, which filed a motion asking the judge not impanel a jury.
But Judge Smith said he had decided on a jury in response to national attention.
He has limited the jury's role to deciding whether the government was negligent.
He said he would determine damages if necessary.
The Branch Davidian controversy has cast a pall over the Justice Department since Feb. 28, 1993, when a gunfight broke out after federal agents tried to raid the compound and serve a warrant on the group's leader, David Koresh, on weapons charges. Four agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms were killed that day, as were six Branch Davidians.
Throughout a 51-day standoff, Mr. Koresh refused the government's order to surrender. The compound caught fire after government agents began pumping tear gas into the structure from tanks and with projectiles.
As ordered by Judge Smith, the jury will consider five central issues: Did government agents use excessive force on Feb. 28? Was the Federal Bureau of Investigation negligent in failing to have fire trucks ready on April 19? Did the tanks battering the compound spread the fire? Did F.B.I. agents fire gunshots into the compound on April 19? And did F.B.I. supervisors at the scene disobey Justice Department orders?
Michael Bradford, one of the lead lawyers for the government, said blame for the deaths of the Branch Davidians rested solely with Mr. Koresh. The government plans to introduce photographs of the huge cache of weapons stockpiled by the Branch Davidians as evidence of his provocative intentions and to remind the jury of his refusal to surrender.
"The tragedy that happened at Waco was brought about by David Koresh, who considered himself to be a messiah who was predicting the end of the world would come about in a violent conflict with the government," Mr. Bradford, the United States Attorney in Beaumont, Tex., said in an interview last week.
He said the government had "acknowledged that there were things that should have been done differently," a point emphasized by hearings in Congress and critical internal inquiries.
But he added: "It's one thing to say that things may not have been done perfectly. It's another thing to say that the government either intentionally or negligently caused those people's deaths."
Mr. Caddell said the first thing he would tell the jury was that he would not defend Mr. Koresh. Mr. Caddell said he would emphasize the women and children who died at the compound, not the men, many of whom were firing at federal agents.
He plans to portray F.B.I. supervisors as so angry during the standoff that they began demolishing the building with tanks on April 19, defying Attorney General Janet Reno's orders.
"I don't have to prove that the government is 100 percent responsible, and I don't believe that," Mr. Caddell said in an interview. "Clearly, David Koresh and the Branch Davidian leadership had some responsibility for what happened. But clearly the government had some responsibility."
The question of whether F.B.I. agents fired into the compound, an accusation the government has consistently denied, may hinge on a comparison between an aerial infrared surveillance video taken on April 19 and a video filmed earlier this year during a simulation ordered by Judge Smith. The two sides have disagreed if flashes on the video of April 19 represent gunfire or reflections from water and debris nearby.
An initial analysis of the simulation supported the government's belief that the flashes were not gunfire, but Mr. Caddell has disputed the findings. He said depositions by two of the experts who analyzed the videos disclosed major problems with the way the simulation was filmed.
The jury trial is expected to last four to six weeks, and the hearing on gunfire could begin in August. The lawsuit, though, does not signal an end to the Branch Davidian controversy. Last fall, Ms. Reno appointed former Senator John C. Danforth of Missouri as an independent special counsel to re-examine the government's role after new evidence showed that F.B.I. agents had fired pyrotechnic tear-gas canisters, capable of starting a fire, into Mount Carmel on April 19. Previously, the F.B.I. had steadfastly denied using such potentially explosive devices.
Mr. Caddell plans to argue that the tear-gas canisters started the fire. The government had long maintained that audiotapes made inside the compound suggest that Mr. Koresh ordered his followers to set the blaze as part of a suicide pact.
Mr. Danforth's investigation is not expected to conclude until after the civil trial.
Mr. Bradford hopes the lawsuit will end the Branch Davidian controversy.
"I think we have learned everything we can know about this," he said. "Hopefully, this will be the end of it, and we can put this behind us and move on."
WACO, Texas, June 19 (Reuters) - Jury selection was scheduled to begin on Monday in a lawsuit by Branch Davidians and their families charging the U.S. government caused the deaths of about 80 sect members in a siege of their central Texas compound seven years ago.
At issue is the question, still hotly debated in America, of whether the FBI or Branch Davidians are responsible for the deaths of cult leader David Koresh and many of 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.
The $675 million wrongful death lawsuit alleges that federal agents triggered the standoff by using excessive force in a raid aimed at arresting Koresh on weapons charges, caused the fires that destroyed the compound and kept firefighters away. The government denies all those allegations.
``The bad acts of David Koresh and a handful of others created a dangerous situation, but bad decisions by the government created a deadly situation in which the lives of a lot of innocent women and children were lost,'' lead plaintiff's lawyer Michael Caddell told the Dallas Morning News.
Acknowledging the sensitive nature of the case, U.S. District Judge Walter Smith has decided to call a six-member advisory jury, an unusual move because lawsuits against the U.S. government are generally tried by the bench, or the presiding judge.
Jury selection in the Waco federal courtroom was due to start at 1 p.m. (2 p.m. EDT) on Monday and opening arguments could be heard as soon as Tuesday, the judge has said. Attorneys familiar with the case say the trial should last about four weeks.
Questions still linger seven years after about 80 members of the Branch Davidian sect died near Waco in a fiery final battle that followed the largest federal law enforcement action in U.S. history.
Revelations last year that the government used potentially incendiary devices on April 19, 1993 -- the day flames engulfed the Branch Davidian headquarters 10 miles outside of Waco -- after years of FBI denials fueled rumors of government shootings and questionable psychological warfare tactics.
For those seeking answers, attention turns once again to Waco. This morning, U.S. District Judge Walter Smith Jr. will begin proceedings in what has become a multimillion-dollar negligence lawsuit against the federal government by surviving Davidians and families of the dead.
Smith alone will issue a verdict, although he will seek the advice of six jurors in a trial that he predicted will last three to four weeks. Although millions of dollars are at stake, attorneys for both the Branch Davidians and the government say they simply want all the facts revealed.
"This case is not about money. It is about truth," said James Brannon, a Houston attorney representing the Davidian estates.
Likewise, Michael Bradford, the U.S. attorney in Beaumont and lead counsel for the government, said, "The truth will come out in trial that the cause of tragedy was the actions of the Branch Davidians."
The events of April 19 are etched in the American psyche, and a vocal group sees them as symbolic of a vicious and dishonest government. Timothy McVeigh, who is on federal Death Row after being convicted of murder and conspiracy in the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, said he was avenging the Branch Davidian deaths two years earlier.
Despite promises from both sides to provide answers, however, the controversy over what happened near Waco likely will not end soon.
Stuart Wright, a sociologist and assistant dean of graduate studies at Lamar University in Beaumont, has written extensively about the Branch Davidians.
"Waco has such legendary proportions in some segments of the culture that it will never go away, regardless of the verdict."
The seeds for crisis were sown in 1992 when agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms began documenting a weapons buildup at Mount Carmel outside Waco. Sect leader David Koresh and dozens of followers were living there, waiting on the world's end, which they believed the Bible foretold.
On Feb. 28, 1993, a contingent of 76 ATF agents arrived at the complex to serve a warrant. A 45-minute shootout left six sect members and four federal agents dead. Koresh was wounded.
The FBI was summoned, and a 51-day standoff ensued. A few adults and children left in the first days, but many stayed. Before the impasse ended, more than 700 federal and state officers had become involved.
Finally, at about 6 a.m. April 19, the FBI began using tanks to punch holes into the 2-story structure, allowing the insertion of tear gas.
At 12:07 p.m., a fire started and quickly spread throughout the building. TV cameras beamed the conflagration to the world. The cause of the fire remains in dispute.
Saying they feared for the safety of firefighters, FBI agents didn't permit local fire departments to approach the complex until about 12:43 p.m.
At least 73 men, women and children, including Koresh, died that day. Only nine Davidians emerged alive. Even the final death toll is unclear -- various government reports place the number between 76 and 80.
Michael Caddell, the lead plaintiffs attorney, said he believes that the jury will find some of his clients' stories heartbreaking. He offers, for example, Misty Ferguson, who was 17 in 1993.
Caddell describes Ferguson's involvement this way:
During the standoff, she watched men with guns make obscene gestures toward her home and armored vehicles patrol the path nearby. She listened as the FBI blared music by Nancy Sinatra, who warned that one day her boots "would walk all over you."
Then, on April 19, Ferguson sat pensive in an upstairs room as tear gas grenades shook the walls. When fire broke out, she tried to escape, only to find the floor ripped out by a tank. She turned back into the fire and fell. Her burned hands were eventually amputated.
The plaintiffs' case, Caddell said is "about the innocent people who got caught up in bad acts by Koresh and bad decisions by the FBI that led to a disaster."
For the survivors, the trial is a chance for revenge against a government that they say belittled their religion, used them as pawns in a publicity stunt and then ruthlessly watched as their housemates died.
For the government, it is a chance for vindication from conspiracy theorists that they say have been callous about the deaths of four federal agents, contemptuous of their efforts to end the standoff peacefully and dismissive of their attempts to enter the burning building to save lives.
Byron Sage, a retired FBI agent who was the lead negotiator at Mount Carmel, said he will forever regret the loss of life.
"Nine people came out that day. Not one of those people took the time to bring a child out," he said. "I will never understand that."
The Davidians' suit was originally quite broad, but Smith dismissed all individual defendants and narrowed the scope to the following questions:
* Was the FBI negligent when it would not allow firetrucks access to the burning building?
* Did the FBI contribute to the fire's ignition, perhaps by toppling lighted lanterns into stored hay when it inserted tear gas mounted on the tips of tank booms?
* Did the ATF use excessive force in its aborted raid of Feb. 28?
* Did FBI agents act prematurely and without proper authority from the Justice Department in ordering tanks to demolish the sect's building?
Most Davidians died of smoke inhalation or carbon monoxide poisoning, although 18 had gunshot wounds consistent with suicide and a few suffocated or died from blunt trauma, according to autopsy reports, many of which were prepared by Tarrant County Medical Examiner Nizam Peerwani.
Attorneys for the Davidians point to a sworn statement by Dick Rogers, FBI hostage rescue team commander, that no plan to fight a fire existed.
Complicating the matter is the FBI's acknowledgment last year, after years of denials, that at least two pyrotechnic tear gas rounds were fired during the final assault.
"Saying, `We don't have any plans to fight a fire,' means you were condemning them to death if a fire starts," Brannon said.
But government attorneys said that Rogers' statement has been misrepresented. FBI agents had been in contact with local fire departments, they say, but could not solve the problem of getting them in without exposing them to the Davidians' firepower.
Bradford, whose U.S. Eastern District office was assigned the case after U.S. Attorney Bill Blagg of the Western District asked to be recused, said he will prove that agents didn't order the destruction of the building. Instead, he said, the tanks accidentally caused a collapse.
Although much of the testimony will focus on April 19, the jury will also consider the ATF's actions on Feb. 28.
The ATF had invited the media to document the operation, called "Showtime." Defenders of the Davidians assert that the ATF wanted to make a strong impression just weeks before federal budget hearings.
When the firefight broke out, the agents fired indiscriminately, shooting through walls and windows, the Branch Davidian attorneys say.
But the government says the Davidians pinned down their agents in an ambush. Media activity had tipped off Koresh -- already paranoid enough to refer to his complex as "Ranch Apocalypse" -- to the impending raid. The agents were firing to save their lives, Bradford said.
One controversial element won't be considered by the jury: whether government agents fired into the Branch Davidians' home on April 19. Smith postponed the question because an expert from a British firm that examined infrared videotape filmed on April 19 is too ill to travel.
The judge originally told the attorneys that he would hear that testimony without the jury present in the summer. A day later, he handed down a written order, asking them to prove why the court should consider the issue at all. The Davidians' attorneys must make their arguments by Friday.
Smith, 59, decided to impanel a jury of six members and one alternate for this month's trial. Federal law calls for a judge to decide cases that are solely against the U.S. government, although he may seat a jury to advise him.
The decision relieved attorneys for the Davidians, who had questioned Smith's impartiality.
Smith, who was appointed to the federal bench by President Reagan in 1984, sentenced eight sect members to up to 40 years in prison in 1994 after a jury in San Antonio found them guilty of weapons violations. The U.S. Supreme Court recently reversed Smith's decision, 9-0, saying he misused a federal anti-gun law in enhancing the sentences.
"As a lawyer for the last 36 years, I've put my faith in juries many, many, many times," Brannon said. "I'm always happier to put my faith in a jury than a judge -- this judge or any other."
Bradford, the government's attorney, said he looks forward to the trial's end.
"Hopefully, this will put an end to an issue that's been dragging on," Bradford said. "It's time for people to let go and quit blaming it on the people who were just out there trying to do their jobs under difficult circumstances."
There's a better case for making a martyr of David Koresh than Mumia Abu-Jamal. So why do liberals continue to overlook him?
June 19, 2000 | What does Mumia Abu-Jamal have that David Koresh doesn't? From Ed Asner to Alice Walker, liberals have flocked to defend Mumia -- convicted in 1982 of killing Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner -- criticizing the way police and prosecutors handled his case and demanding a new trial. Luminaries of the left marched, chanted and purchased full-page ads in the New York Times to appeal to state and federal authorities to provide for Mumia, who has been on Pennsylvania's death row for 18 years.
Meanwhile, conservatives have taken up for David Koresh and the 80 Branch Davidians who died in Waco in 1993. Why haven't liberals shown the same concern for them? While there are some questions about the conduct of police and prosecutors in the Mumia case, there are many more lingering questions about the police actions taken against Koresh and his followers. For instance: Why did the Department of Justice use tanks against civilians? Why did the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms continue with its raid against Koresh when it knew the element of surprise had been lost? Why didn't the ATF simply arrest Koresh when he was shopping in Waco or away from the Mount Carmel compound in the weeks before the February 28, 1993, raid?
There are dozens of other questions, all of which are of particular importance now that the Branch Davidians' civil lawsuit against the federal government is going forward. Jury selection in the trial begins Monday. The lawsuit, being tried in Waco before U.S. District Court Judge Walter Smith, Jr., accuses the government of negligence in its actions during the standoff. So why haven't more members of the left rallied to the Davidians' side?
Indeed, of all the controversial police actions of recent years, the ATF's and FBI's assaults on the Mount Carmel compound are the ones that should have most aroused the left's passion. Never before or since has so much military firepower been brought to bear on a group of American civilians. That fact alone should be reason enough to convince the left to spring into action. After all, the left has long argued for demilitarization. Yet, when the military used tanks, helicopters and psychological weapons (including high-volume speakers blaring music to prevent Koresh and his followers from sleeping) against civilians in Waco, they remained, for the most part, silent.
A handful of liberals, including former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who represents some of the Davidians and their survivors in the lawsuit, have weighed in on the matter. Another noted leftist, Howard Zinn, came out in defense of Koresh in an article he wrote for Z Magazine during the height of the Clinton impeachment debate. Zinn wrote that there were better reasons to impeach Clinton than having fellatio performed on him by Monica Lewinsky -- the foremost being the federal attack in Waco. The circumstances of the siege, he wrote, "did not warrant losing patience with negotiations and choosing military solution."
Other theories that may explain why the left has ignored Waco revolve around the same broad issues that tend to galvanize Americans in general: guns, race, religion, class and the Clinton presidency.
Mumia Abu-Jamal has his own theory about the left's silence: Bill Clinton. In a recent exchange of letters from his death row cell in Waynesburg, Penn., Mumia opined that the main reason liberals haven't admonished the ATF and FBI is that they were "so hungry for a win in Washington after years of Reagan/Bush." Liberals "were certainly reluctant to pin Reno/Clinton to the wall after Waco," Mumia wrote, "and then proceeded to ignore and forget the carnage at Mount Carmel."
Former Texas State Sen. Jerry Patterson says the issue is guns. Patterson, a former Marine aviator, laughingly refers to himself as a "gun nut" and the "go-to guy for the black helicopter crowd." He authored the state's concealed-handgun law. He also used his connections with other Texas state officials to help filmmaker Michael McNulty, who produced "Waco: The Rules of Engagement," gain access to the state-controlled evidence rooms in Austin, Texas.
McNulty's investigation showed conclusively that the FBI fired numerous pyrotechnic devices at the Branch Davidian compound in the hours before the final fire that consumed the building on April 19, 1993. (The discovery served to discredit the FBI, which had long denied that any such pyrotechnic devices had been used.)
Patterson says liberals don't care about Waco because Koresh and his followers were gun enthusiasts. "The left has never believed in the Second Amendment," says Patterson.
Patterson, a conservative Republican, says the left's efforts to decrease the number of handguns in circulation, and its support of the Brady bill and harsher gun control measures, prevents it from supporting Koresh, whom federal authorities accused of possessing numerous unlicensed automatic assault rifles. Never mind that Koresh's weapons would have been legal under the laws in existence at the time of the siege if he had simply bought a $200 permit for each automatic rifle.
Nor has the left noted that the Branch Davidians could have argued in court that they were simply defending themselves during the original shootout with the ATF. Though it's rarely mentioned, Texas law would have permitted the Branch Davidians to fire back upon police officers if they believed the police were using excessive force.
When I mentioned to an apolitical friend of mine that I was writing about why the left has ignored Waco, he immediately offered his own theory: "That's because the Davidians were Christians." It's a harsh charge to make, but there is a kernel of truth in it. The left has never been overly supportive of conservative Christians, who have typically allied themselves with the right. In fact, the issues the left champions -- like gun control, abortion rights and abolition of the death penalty -- put them squarely in opposition to many conservative Christian groups. After Koresh was portrayed by the media as a Christian zealot, the prospect of liberals rushing to his aid was immediately diminished.
The Davidians were "presumed to be white Bible beaters and everybody on the left hates them, right?" asks Dick Reavis, the author of "The Ashes of Waco," perhaps the best single book yet written about the events of early 1993 and the aftermath. Reavis, a longtime leftist, has frequently remarked that his criticism of the federal government has not been accepted by the people that he believed were his allies. Ironically, after his book was published, he found himself speaking to pro-militia groups, pro-gun rights activists and other conservatives.
The political divisions over Waco are "not left to right," says David Hardy, a Tucson, Ariz.-based lawyer who has written extensively about the incident at the Davidian compound. "It's the rednecks against the yuppies," he said. Hardy also points out that Koresh was not born into money, he never developed intellectual passion for anything but the Bible and he dropped out of high school in the 11th grade. He was mostly interested in girls, rock and roll, the Bible and Camaros.
Hardy's position is echoed by Reavis. "Liberalism today is a bunch of Starbucks Coffee type of people," says Reavis. "Guns and religion are blue-collar issues. My peers on the left aren't interested, but the average truck driver thinks the government murdered those people."
The issue of class, combined with the Davidians' location in rural Texas, also figured into the mix. "Whatever Koresh's politics, he was a redneck, and therefore, to the liberals, he's not interesting," said Hardy. Mumia by comparison, says Hardy, doesn't menace any of their values."
Mumia's theory -- that liberals didn't want to take on a Democratic president they had waited years to elect -- is shared by figures across the political spectrum. Indeed, it is even bolstered by an unlikely source: Byron Sage, the now-retired FBI agent who was a lead negotiator at Mount Carmel during the siege. Sage spent hundreds of hours talking to Koresh and later testified before Congress about the deadly confrontation. Shortly after the compound burned to the ground, killing all but nine of the people inside, he said conservatives immediately used the event as a hammer. The death and destruction at Waco has "been politicized by Republicans to beat the hell out of the Clinton administration and Janet Reno," said Sage, who volunteered that he was a registered Republican throughout his entire career with the FBI. "It inflames the hell out of me," he said.
With conservatives taking the offensive, opines Sage, liberals were left with nothing to do but defend Clinton. To side with the right on Waco, even if it was morally and intellectually defensible, was not an option.
As chief trial counsel and director of the Southern Legal Resource Center, Kirk Lyons has credentials more conservative than Sage -- and like him, Lyons credits the Clinton factor for the left's silence. Based in Black Mountain, N.C., Lyons has defended a number of white supremacists and has fought efforts to remove the Confederate flag from atop the Statehouse in South Carolina.
Lyons, who represents the families of several Davidians in the civil trial, including several black victims, is not one to shy away from hyperbole. And during an interview a few days ago, he quickly launched into an attack on Clinton.
The president, says Lyons, is "a totalitarianist. He and Hillary want a worker's paradise and you need a goon state to do that. The FBI and the ATF are their goons." The reason liberals won't say anything about Waco, says Lyons, is that "it's their boy in the White House. To criticize him is to criticize the left."
The great irony about Waco is this: If he is ever executed, Mumia will become a martyr figure for the left. Meanwhile, Koresh will likely continue to be ignored, even though he and about 80 others died due to the consequences of actions taken by federal police. It's those police actions, not political persuasion, that are the common denominator among the most outspoken critics of the government on Waco.
"There's been no accountability," says Lyons. "It appears they can murder people and then just leave. I don't think they should get away with it."
Waco, FBI and the Branch Davidians: Updates
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