US high court overturns Branch Davidians' sentences

San Jose Mercury News, Reuters, June 5, 2000

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Supreme Court overturned Monday the long prison sentences for five Branch Davidians for using machine guns during a shootout with federal agents in 1993 at the cult's compound near Waco, Texas.

The unanimous high court, in an opinion by Justice Stephen Breyer, said a federal judge had been wrong to use a federal firearm law to increase their sentences. Breyer said the jury should have considered the matter.

Under the law, Breyer said the type of weapon, such as a machine gun, used during a violent crime was an element of an offense to be decided by the jury and was not a sentencing factor to be determined by the judge.

Four federal agents and three Branch Davidians were killed during the Feb. 28, 1993, shootout that started when federal agents tried to arrest cult leader David Koresh. A standoff developed, and 51 days later Koresh and about 80 followers died in a fire after agents injected tear gas into the building.

Nine Branch Davidians who escaped were arrested and then put on trial. Jaime Castillo, Brad Branch, Renos Avraam and Kevin Whitecliff received consecutive terms of 10 years in prison for manslaughter and 30 years for using machine guns during a violent crime. Graeme Craddock received 10 years for using a grenade and a consecutive 10 years for using a machine gun.

The firearm law imposes a five-year sentence but allows a 10-year term if the weapon was a semiautomatic firearm and a 30-year term for use of a machine gun or grenade.

The ruling sends the case back to the judge for a new sentencing.

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