WACO, Texas (Reuters) - In a clear victory for the U.S. government, an advisory jury in a $675 million lawsuit by the Branch Davidians found on Friday that federal agents were not to blame for the deaths of about 80 sect members in the 1993 Waco siege and fire.
The five-member jury, whose verdict is only a guideline for U.S. District Judge Walter Smith, took just over two hours to reach a decision that Davidian lawyers conceded would settle for most Americans a seven-year debate over who was at fault in the Waco conflagration.
``I think this verdict for most of the American people is the final word. What they will take away from this is that five people sat on a jury for four weeks and they found the government not guilty,'' Michael Caddell, the plaintiffs' lead attorney, told reporters.
The lawsuit filed against the U.S. government charged that federal agents were at least partly responsible for a 51-day armed standoff at the Davidian compound outside Waco in central Texas and a blaze that consumed the building after an FBI tank and tear gas assault.
The suit was filed by surviving Branch Davidians and relatives of the dead.
FBI Director Louis Freeh welcomed the verdict, saying there had been ``a lot of speculation, misinformation and second-guessing'' about the case.
``The significance of the jury's findings to the courageous federal law enforcement officers who have had to absorb unproven allegations and public criticisms for all these years cannot be overstated,'' Freeh said in a statement. ``An enormous burden has been lifted from them and their families.''
Latest Round Between Sect And Government
Government lawyers argued the Davidians and their leader, David Koresh, bore sole responsibility for starting the stand-off by shooting at U.S. Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) agents, who raided the property on Feb. 28, 1993 to arrest Koresh, and for setting the compound ablaze in a suicidal act of defiance on April 13, 1993.
It was the latest round of a seven-year battle between the Davidians and the U.S. government over the Waco siege that led to congressional inquiries and to criminal trials. A special investigator was named by the Justice Department last year to look into how federal agents conducted the operation.
``This has been a tragedy that has gone on for many years and I hope this puts it to rest,'' U.S. Attorney Mike Bradford said.
The advisory jury, a special feature of federal civil suits against the government, sided fully with the government against the charges of excessive force and negligence.
Specifically, the jury said that evidence showed the ATF did not fire indiscriminately during the initial raid, that the FBI did not cause the fire when its tanks penetrated the compound walls and did not violate orders by not having firefighters on hand.
Smith said he would make a final ruling after a hearing on Aug. 2 on a final issue raised by the Davidian lawsuit -- whether FBI agents fired on sect members as they tried to flee the burning compound. That aspect was broken from the trial because a key witness was kept away by surgery.
``The jury has now given me their advice on how they see the facts in this case. I can use their advice in any manner I see fit,'' Smith told the court.
Smith is the same judge who presided over a criminal trial of five Davidian survivors on weapons charges in 1994. Smith handed down sentences of between 20 and 40 years, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last month they must be shortened because Smith improperly applied sentencing guidelines.
Several of the roughly 100 plaintiffs said after Friday's verdict they felt the civil trial was one-sided and Smith was biased against them.
``It was more of us on trial than them,'' said Clive Doyle, who survived the Waco fire but lost his teenage daughter.
Some said they wanted to appeal but Caddell, their lead counsel, told reporters it was too early to decide before the judge reaches a final verdict.
Caddell also suggested he may drop the final issue of FBI gunfire before the Aug. 2 hearing, which would leave the judge free to reach a final verdict based on the case so far.
The government denies FBI agents fired at all on the day of the fire, a charge the plaintiffs have based on flashes of light on a FBI aerial surveillance video.
Court-appointed experts, who conducted a test filming of gunfire in March, have said the results show the flashes on the original Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) video were caused by by sunlight and heat, not gunfire.
But the judge put off hearing the issue until the leading expert from the British firm that did the test, Vector Data Systems, could fly to the United States after surgery.
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