Waco Wrongful Death Trial Ending

The Associated Press, July 14, 2000
By Matt Slagle

WACO, Texas (AP) - Six years after the government prosecuted Branch Davidians over the events at Waco, the government faced a verdict of its own on its handling of the raid and siege of the Mount Carmel compound.

Closing arguments were set to begin Friday in the $675 million wrongful death lawsuit filed by family members and survivors who blame federal agents for the deaths of some 80 sect members.

U.S. District Judge Walter Smith Jr., the same federal judge who presided over the Branch Davidians' criminal trial, will then get the case along with an advisory juror panel.

The trial has centered on events that began on Feb. 28, 1993, when Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents tried to search the complex and arrest sect leader David Koresh on illegal weapons charges.

When gunfire erupted, six Davidians and four ATF agents were killed.

A 51-day standoff ensued, ending on April 19, 1993, with the deaths of sect men, women and children from either gunshots or fire as the compound burned to the ground.

The government capped its defense Thursday with emotional testimony from an FBI agent who entered the burning compound on the final day and struggled to pull a sect member to safety.

"I found her about 8 to 12 feet inside laying on the floor, laying face down," said James McGee, a Hostage Rescue Team member. "She was resistant and said, 'No, leave me alone."'

McGee said Ruth Riddle did not respond when he asked about children.

"If she had told me, I would have gone after the children or died trying," said McGee, who received a Medal of Valor for his actions.

Government lawyers also presented autopsy findings on 21 adults, children and one infant who died in the complex. Twenty died of gunshot wounds and a toddler died of a stab wound to the chest - proof, they said, that Davidians were suicidal and started the fires.

But plaintiffs said FBI tanks engaged in a tear-gassing operation may have contributed to or caused the three fires by knocking over kerosene lanterns inside the complex. A government fire expert said the fires were probably set by cult members.

Before the trial, Smith ruled that the jury would not consider perhaps the most contentious issue - whether federal agents shot at the Davidians at the end of the siege. The judge said he will take up the issue later.

The plaintiffs were left to claim that agents used excessive force during the initial raid; the government said the agents were under fire and were only defending themselves.

The plaintiffs also said FBI was negligent when they used the tanks to prematurely demolish the building, violating a plan approved by Attorney General Janet Reno.

The government insisted the demolition was only a result of trying to create paths so tanks could inject tear gas into hard-to-reach parts of the building.

In the 1994 criminal trial, jurors acquitted 11 sect members of conspiring to murder federal agents and found eight guilty of voluntary manslaughter and weapons charges.

Smith decided an advisory jury would hear the latest case even though one is not required under federal law. Smith has indicated he will take the jury's decision under advisement and issue his final ruling later.

"He has a great deal of latitude. He can either rule for or against us, regardless of what this advisory jury has to say," government attorney Michael Bradford said.

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