Davidians: No justice in Waco; Plaintiff's attorney: Fair trial impossible

Waco Tribune-Herald, July 15, 2000
By Martha Ashe

Survivors of the tragedy at Mount Carmel and relatives of Branch Davidians who died in the blaze said Friday they did not expect to find justice in Waco.

The plaintiffs in the wrongful-death case against the government blamed Waco residents, U.S. District Judge Walter Smith and federal agents after the five-member advisory jury returned a verdict Friday against the Davidians.

Ramsey Clark, a former U.S. attorney general who represented some of the plaintiffs, huddled outside the courtroom after the verdict with Davidians and their relatives, telling them they could not have received a fair trial in Waco.

Jurors were making a statement, on behalf of the Waco community, by deliberating less than three hours to arrive at a verdict, Clark said.

“It’s a statement (saying), ‘We don’t like people like that,’ ” Clark said. “Religion is a factor, but the demonization of that is part of it.”

Clark compared Waco’s relationship to the Davidians to Dallas’ desire to distance itself from the assassination of President Kennedy. Except, he said, in Waco’s case, “they were homegrown.”

David Koresh and 75 others died April 19, 1993, when the 51-day government seige of the Branch Davidian compound at Mount Carmel ended in fire.

Bonnie Haldeman, Koresh’s mother, said jurors had their minds made up before they began deliberating.

“I think there’s a lot of good people in Waco . . . but I think what you hear mostly is the voice of the few,” Haldeman said. “I’m not disappointed. If you don’t expect something, you can’t be disappointed . . . The jury was sort of a farce, anyway.”

Sherry Burgo, whose father Floyd Houtman died in the 1993 fire, said the jury’s verdict was as painful for her as the day the Mount Carmel compound went up in flames, though in a different way.

“I often think of him,” Sherry Burgo said. “I know he’s probably not happy” with the verdict.

Her husband was more specific. “I know what he would say,” Kenneth Burgo said. “He would say, ‘Wait on God.’ ”

The Burgos traveled from their home in Massachusetts for the four-week trial. Now they said they will await the ruling from Smith, who will consider the decision of the "advisory jury," and hope an appeals court will see the case their way.

“We’re going to be strong,” Sherry Burgo said. “Once we’re out of Waco, we’ll have a chance. All I wanted was justice.

“It wasn’t fair from the beginning. We weren’t allowed to bring in evidence to present the case. All our evidence was destroyed at Mount Carmel.”

The Burgos blame Smith for rulings that prevented the plaintiffs from presenting evidence that the fire did not destroy. They blamed the federal government for covering up its actions.

“How do you try a case when you see a judge being one-sided?” Kenneth Burgo said. “This here was just a big joke to (the federal government). They knew they were going to railroad this case before they even got here.”

For Branch Davidian Sheila Martin of Waco, Friday’s verdict against the Davidians was a reflection of people’s rejection of the sect’s religious beliefs.

“You take it one day at a time,” Martin said. “All you could do was sit and listen (as the verdict is read) and hold your breath. . . . Our trust is in God. You can’t depend on any person.”

Branch Davidian Clive Doyle of Waco, who escaped the fire and later was acquitted in the 1994 criminal trial, said the verdict was not unexpected.

“I saw it coming for the whole month,” Doyle said. “I didn’t expect anything different with the way it was set up with all the restrictions the judge put on the case.”

The lesson to be learned from the trial is to try to avoid a confrontation with the government, which will win in the end, Doyle said.

“The message is that you better not be on the receiving end of the government.” he said. “They demonize you and justify anything they want to do to you.

Doyle, who lost an 18-year-old daughter in the fire, said he doesn’t think the trial will put to rest any of the questions remaining from Mount Carmel.

“I don’t think it will change anybody’s mind. There are still those questions out there,” he said.

Smith is expected to make a final ruling on the case later this summer, after an August hearing to consider evidence on whether federal agents fired gunshots at the compound the day of the fire.

Because the jury acted in an advisory capacity, Smith could disregard its verdict and rule in the Davidians’ favor.

But Clark, the plaintiffs' attorney, said he doesn’t expect that to happen.

“It doesn’t seem likely,” Clark said. “One of the great things about life is it’s full of surprises. Not lately, though.”

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