Davidians may be free in six years

Wednesday, September 20th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

A federal judge has more than halved the federal prison sentences of five Branch Davidians and also cut five years from the sentence of a sixth, ensuring that all could be free within less than six years, a defense lawyer said Tuesday.

The order, issued Friday by U.S. District Judge Walter S. Smith Jr., followed a recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that the Waco trial judge had erred in his original sentencing of sect members on federal weapons charges.

Five of the Branch Davidians convicted on manslaughter and weapons charges in a 1994 criminal trial were sentenced to a total of 40 years in federal prison, and a sixth was sentenced to 20 years.

But the high court set the stage for Friday's order in its ruling last winter that Judge Smith lacked authority to impose 30-year sentences for five of the sect members convicted on weapons charges. Each of the five also received an additional 10 years for manslaughter.

In his two-page order, the judge wrote that he was revising each of the sentences without further court proceedings because government lawyers had informed the court that there is "no desire to attempt to retry the defendants."

Although Branch Davidian Livingstone Fagan did not appeal his 40-year sentence, Judge Smith wrote that his prison term would be cut to 15 years because "the court believes it would be manifestly unfair not to reduce his sentence, also."

Also receiving 15-year terms as a result of Friday's order are Branch Davidians Brad Branch, Kevin Whitecliff, Jaime Castillo and Renos Avraam.

Sect member Graeme Craddock, originally sentenced to 20 years, also received a 15-year prison term.

The 15-year prison sentence of a seventh Branch Davidian, Paul Fatta, was not affected by Friday's ruling.

Their convictions stemmed from a 1993 confrontation at the sect's rural compound near Waco. Four agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms died in a gunbattle that broke out as they tried to search the building and arrest leader David Koresh on weapons violations.

An ensuing standoff ended 51 days later with a fire that consumed the compound with Mr. Koresh and more than 80 followers inside.

Eleven surviving sect members were tried in San Antonio almost a year later. Three were acquitted of all charges, and a federal jury also acquitted the remaining Branch Davidians on the most serious charge of conspiracy to murder federal agents.

Instead, Mr. Fatta and Branch Davidian Ruth Riddle were found guilty of weapons charges, and the remaining sect members were found guilty of manslaughter and weapons violations. Ms. Riddle was freed after serving a five-year sentence.

"My calculation is that in about five and a half years, they'll all be out," said Richard Ferguson, a Waco attorney who helped defend Mr. Branch.

Although his client and the other Branch Davidians believe they should have been released years ago, Mr. Ferguson said, the sentence reductions are welcome because they will probably allow the imprisoned sect members to be transferred to lower-security facilities.

"I assume they'll be reclassified and sent to a more hospitable environment, and that will put them in a better frame of mind. They've been pretty angry and bitter," he said.