Facts amid the spin

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 23, 2000

Last weekend's Waco simulation proved one thing: You can't trust lawyers to report on scientific results.

Within 24 hours of the test at Fort Hood, Texas, the lawyer for the Branch Davidians had said the test proved that government agents had fired at Waco, and the lawyer for the government said it proved the opposite.

As the case moves slowly on, hope is waning that we will ever know for sure what happened when the 51-day government siege ended in the fiery deaths of almost 80 people inside the Texas complex of Branch Davidian leader David Koresh.

In the coming weeks, the test films will be watched more times than "Gone with the Wind," but only by the parties involved and Vector Data Systems Ltd., a British firm hired to advise Special Counsel John C. Danforth.

U.S. District Judge Walter S. Smith Jr. ordered the test tapes sealed, preventing reporters from seeing for themselves what the lawyers claim they show. This secrecy undermines the goal of explaining Waco to the public.

The test film already has proven experts from both sides wrong. The government previously said that gunfire would not show up on infrared tape, while the Branch Davidians said sunlight wouldn't. Both did. More significantly, the bodies of the soldiers shooting the guns showed up on the test tape. No bodies are visible near the flashes on the 1993 tape.

The test tape will be evidence in the upcoming civil trial in which the Branch Davidians seek to hold the government responsible for the dead. The test also will inform Mr. Danforth's investigation, the outcome of which could restore, or further erode, public faith in government.

Extremists on both sides seem to have already made up their minds. There is probably no test or court ruling that could change them. The rest of us should reserve judgment as we try to separate fact from spin.

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