Scientology Crime Syndicate

21 Jun 2000

It's Time for Trial Over Blame in Waco Fire That Killed Cultists

Courts: Branch Davidians' lawsuit says the FBI caused the deaths of about 80 people holed up at the end of the 1993 siege. The government contests every accusation.

From Reuters

WACO, Texas--Seven years after the fiery end of a siege outside Waco, Branch Davidians and the U.S government will face off in court next week over Davidian claims that federal agents caused the deaths of about 80 cult members.

At stake is the question, still hotly debated, of whether the FBI or Branch Davidians are responsible for the deaths of cult leader David Koresh and many of his followers.

The government is the defendant in the $675-million wrongful-death lawsuit, originally filed in 1994 as nine cases and since consolidated into one. The plaintiffs, numbering about 100, are Branch Davidians who survived the siege and relatives of those who died in the April 19, 1993, inferno. The rural compound went up in flames after FBI agents used tear gas to end a 51-day standoff.

Whatever the verdict, many believe it will not be enough to settle the continuing angry dispute between those who accuse the government of abuse of power and others who say the Davidians set the fire themselves in a suicidal act of defiance. "People have staked out their sides of the controversy for so long, it's hard to imagine it will end," said Bill Pitts, a professor of religion at Baylor University in Waco who has studied the Branch Davidian cult.

The siege is also being investigated by special counsel John Danforth, appointed by the Justice Department last year after the FBI ended six years of denials by admitting it fired potentially flammable tear-gas canisters near the compound several hours before it burned.

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 will start Monday and opening arguments could be heard as soon as Tuesday, the judge has said. Attorneys familiar with the case believe the trial will last about four weeks.

The plaintiffs are expected to call a string of FBI witnesses and outside experts to back up their claims that the government caused the deaths in three ways: * By using excessive force in a Feb. 28 raid on the compound that sparked the standoff. A gunfight broke out when agents of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms tried to arrest Koresh on firearms charges. Four agents and six Davidians were killed.

* By causing the fires that roared through the compound on April 19, possibly with explosive tear gas canisters. The fires started six hours after the FBI began pouring tear gas into the buildings with armored vehicles that punched in walls;

* By holding firefighters back from the scene. The judge has postponed ruling on another allegation, that FBI agents shot at the compound during the fires and therefore killed Davidians by gunfire or by keeping them from fleeing the burning building. That point will be decided in August because a court-appointed expert was ill and unable to attend the trial. Government lawyers are contesting all the charges.

U.S. Atty. Mike Bradford has said the ATF agents were simply firing in self-defense after being attacked when they tried to arrest Koresh.

The government has blamed Branch Davidians for setting the fires that consumed the compound and said firefighters could not approach because of the danger of Davidian gunfire and from exploding munitions stored on the grounds.

The government has also denied that FBI agents shot at the Davidians.

Davidians say government gunfire accounted for flashes of light that appear in FBI aerial infrared footage of the last day, but a field test led a court-appointed expert to say those flashes were just sunlight and heat reflecting off debris.


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