After a month of testimony revisiting the tragedy at the Davidians' Mount Carmel compound in 1993, a five-member jury will hear closing arguments in the case this morning before beginning deliberations.
But the lead attorney for the Davidian plaintiffs enters the trial's final phase with deflated expectations after a decision by the judge late Thursday on the instructions he will give the jury, which is acting in an unusual advisory-only capacity.
"I would say that it basically ignores the law," attorney Michael Caddell said after scanning U.S. District Judge Walter Smith's instructions.
Caddell said that the instructions hurt his case by lumping all the Davidians into a single group, rather than distinguishing between leaders such as David Koresh and teenage followers, and by asking the jury to determine whether the sect as a whole had culpability.
He suggested that the judge is trying to "engineer a verdict" through his loose reading of the law.
The relatives of the Davidians killed at Mount Carmel, along with several survivors, are trying to show that the government bears part of the responsibility for the tragic outcome. They maintain that federal agents used reckless attacks in the shootout with the Davidians that started the siege and the 51-day standoff that followed. About 80 sect members died in the conflagration on the last day.
But the government's final witness, FBI agent Jim McGee, said on the stand Thursday that he was willing to risk his life for sect members.
McGee was operating one of the government's tanks on April 19, 1993, the final day of the standoff, seeking to punch holes in the compound walls and launch tear gas canisters inside to force out the occupants.
But fire broke out--a fire set, the government maintains, by Koresh and his followers in a mass suicide. McGee said that, when he spotted a woman jumping from the second floor of the compound and landing near flames below, he left his tank to help her and to try to find others inside.
"Where are the children?" McGee remembered yelling.
But the woman, Ruth Riddle, who later served several years in prison for her role in the Davidian standoff, would not answer, McGee said, and she struggled as he tried to get her out of the building. "She was resistant. She said, 'No, leave me alone,' " he said.
He carried her to safety away from the building, he said, but he regretted not having been able to locate any of the more than 20 children--some infants--who died inside.
"If she'd told me [where they were], I would have gone in after the children or died trying," said McGee, his voice choked with emotion.
A government lawyer asked McGee, who was later given an FBI medal of honor for his actions, why he was willing to risk his life.
"I went into the compound because the motto of [the FBI's] Hostage Rescue Team is servare vitas--that means to save lives."
Davidian attorneys spent the final day of testimony pressing their contention that the government's plans at Mount Carmel were woefully inadequate to handle the type of fire that broke out that day.
But U.S. Atty. Michael Bradford said that it was not for lack of trying by agents such as McGee.
"What that shows," he said of McGee's testimony, "is the kind of people who were out there for the FBI that day."
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