After seven years of suspicion that shook the nation's faith in its justice system, a jury took only 190 minutes to absolve the government of guilt in the 51-day siege of the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, Texas, which ended in the fiery deaths of some 80 people.
Although the five-member panel of jurors only advises Judge Walter S. Smith, Jr., who is presiding over the $675 million wrongful death suit filed against the government by survivors of the Davidians, both the verdict and trial testimony strongly steer this long, national nightmare toward a resolution in favor of the government.
Still to come are the judge's verdict, following additional testimony Aug. 2nd on one of the key questions of both this case and the independent investigation being conducted by former Missouri Sen. John Danforth: Did federal agents fire their weapons into the compound? The judge is expected to conclude they did not. Nor has any strong evidence surfaced publicly that would lead Mr. Danforth to the opposite conclusion.
The verdict does not mean the government made no mistakes in its handling of the siege, which began on Feb. 28, 1993, when it dispatched more than 70 agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms -- an unnecessarily provocative force -- to serve a search warrant. It does mean that the government did not willfully, conspiratorially commit bad acts or cause the deaths of some 80 men, women and children. It does mean that cult leader David Koresh and his so-called "Mighty Men" set their own their compound on fire and were responsible for this tragic loss of lives.
Could the government have handled the situation better? Could there have been a fire plan? A better hostage negotiating strategy? Could the agents have shown more patience and made a better attempt to arrest Mr. Koresh separately? In hindsight, the answer to these questions is yes. There were terrible mistakes with terrible consequences. But a conspiracy to fire weapons, set a fire and kill everyone inside? No. The evidence overwhelmingly said no. The jury, in only 190 minutes, overwhelmingly said no.
Did Mr. Koresh and his followers, hoarding 360 firearms, have a legal obligation to submit to lawful authority? Yes, they did. Should they have encouraged women, children and anyone else wanting to survive to leave? Yes, they should have.
The final damning evidence could be heard on tape recordings made inside the compound on small hidden devices, "Should we light the fire?" "Let's keep that fire going." "There's nothing like a good fire to bring us to the earth."
For conspiracy theorists, this will not be enough. Nothing would be enough. A tragedy that should never have taken place did, and investigations, while too long in coming, were undertaken and are now coming to a close. They have been thorough and fair. Much has been learned in the process. Their conclusions should be embraced, and a nation can soon heal from the wounds of Waco.
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