WACO, Tex., June 20 -- Trial in a lawsuit filed against the government by survivors and relatives of those killed in the 1993 fire at the Branch Davidian compound began today with the two sides giving different interpretations of the same basic facts.
"This case is about truth and responsibility," said Michael A. Caddell, lead attorney for the plaintiffs. "We'll hear the truth about what happened at Mount Carmel and who bears the responsibility for what happened, including the death of 25 children."
J. Michael Bradford, the United States attorney in Texas, told the federal judge and seven-member advisory jury hearing the case that responsibility was also the theme of his defense. "The responsibility for this tragedy is with David Koresh and the Branch Davidians," he said.
The case grew out of a botched raid in which 10 people died, including 4 Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents trying to arrest the group's leader, David Koresh, for weapons violations. After a 51-day standoff, Mr. Koresh and more than 79 of his followers died when fire broke out as federal agents used armored tanks to pump tear gas into the sect's ramshackle compound near here.
Mr. Bradford said the Branch Davidians had ambushed the 80 officers involved in the first raid on Feb. 28, 1993.
He said Mr. Koresh had trained them to use weapons in anticipation of just such a confrontation, and quoted him as telling his followers, 'If you can't kill for God, you can't die for God.' "
Plaintiffs are asking for $695 million in damages from the government, accusing federal agents of contributing to the deaths of the Branch Davidians.
Other accusations in the suit, that agents fired into the compound, preventing the Branch Davidians from fleeing, will be heard later, according to an order by the judge, Walter S. Smith Jr.
Mr. Caddell said his lawsuit revolved around four issues: Did federal agents direct indiscriminate gunfire at the compound during the initial raid? Did the F.B.I. deviate from its approved operational plan? Did unauthorized F.B.I. action cause or contribute to the fire? And did the F.B.I. violate Attorney General Janet Reno's orders by not having firefighting equipment available on April 19, 1993?
"Half of this case rests on what happened on April 19," he said, laying much of blame for the events of that day on the F.B.I.'s field commanders for the operation, Jeffrey Jamar and Rick Rogers.
"Make no mistake," Mr. Caddell said. "The men driving the tanks that day were only following orders. The men responsible were Jamar and Rogers." Mr. Caddell moved quickly to separate his clients from those Branch Davidians involved with weapons or violence during the raid, admitting that hundreds of firearms were found in the burned-out compound.
"That is not in dispute here," he said. "Eight people were convicted for those crimes and sent to prison. None of them are involved in this lawsuit. I am not here to defend David Koresh."
He also conceded that some Branch Davidians may have set at least one of three fires that government investigators say started the April 19, 1993, blaze.
For his part, Mr. Bradford tried to deflect charges of indiscriminate firing by government agents by describing the chaotic conditions during the raid. "They did not expect to receive gunfire," he said. "The agents were in a situation where they were pinned down and fighting for their lives."
Three Branch Davidians injured during the raid, he said, were killed by their own companions. "The B.A.T.F. tried to get them out for medical treatment, but instead of giving them medical attention they were shot," Mr. Bradford said.
He also scoffed at Mr. Caddell's theory of the origin of the fires: "They didn't start just one of the fires, they started all of them."
Knowing that jurors will have to sift through mountains of documents and physical evidence, both sides tried to personalize the anguish their clients have gone through over the events of seven and a half years ago.
Mr. Bradford continually referred to the agents of the A.T.F. and F.B.I. as victims of Mr. Koresh's blood lust against the government. "They were simply trying to carry out their duties and responsibilities, and they met a dangerous man named David Koresh," he said.
At one point in his presentation, Mr. Caddell displayed photographs of 15 children killed, saying "Let me introduce my clients."
As the children's images appeared on a screen in the courtroom, Mr. Caddell repeated a similar litany about each: "She never owned a gun. She never held a gun. She never fired a gun. She never hurt anyone."
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