Waco Questions Loom 7 Years Later

Monday, June 12th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WACO, Texas (AP) — It's been seven years since 80 people died in the fiery conclusion to a standoff between the government and the Branch Davidian religious sect.

On June 19, the two sides will confront each other again — this time in a courtroom.

The government is the defendant in a $675 million wrongful death lawsuit, which consolidates nine civil cases filed in 1994 by Branch Davidian family members and survivors. Legal maneuvers by both sides contributed to the delay in bringing the case to trial.

The lawsuit alleges the government used excessive force in the initial raid on the Branch Davidian compound that started the 51-day standoff, may have caused at least two of the fires that destroyed the compound and improperly withheld firefighting assistance. The government denies the allegations.

Early on April 19, 1993, government tanks rammed holes in a wooden building in the compound, where more than 80 sect members lived with their leader David Koresh, to allow tear gas canisters to be thrown inside.

About six hours later, fire raced through the building and killed 80 people, at least 17 of them children.

The plaintiffs' lead attorney, Michael Caddell of Houston, said the lawsuit is not about money.

``It's about acknowledgment of shared responsibility and a commitment that this will never happen again,'' said Caddell.

U.S. Attorney Mike Bradford, lead counsel for the government, hopes the trial will restore the public's faith in the law-enforcement community.

``This was a terrible tragedy because there was a significant loss of life,'' said Bradford. ``It's been a great burden on the public and certainly on law enforcement agencies. Unfortunately one of the things that has happened is there has been a lot of misinformation over the years in public domain through a variety of sources. We hope this trial will be an opportunity to get the facts out.''

Many of those facts are in dispute.

The lawsuit alleges that FBI agents fired at Davidians during the final moments of the siege, and that the gunfire was captured on infrared aerial surveillance tape made by the FBI.

``We can't prove that any specific individual was killed by government gunfire on April 19,'' said Caddell. ``The significance is simply that people would've been afraid to come out of the building.''

The defense maintains there was no government gunfire.

The plaintiffs also accuse government agents of using excessive force during the original Feb. 28 raid on the compound by agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, who were trying to serve search and arrest warrants for suspected firearms violations. A gunfight broke out and four agents and six Davidians were killed.

Bradford said the agents were ambushed and were firing back in self-defense. In 1994 five Davidians were convicted of voluntary manslaughter in the agents' deaths.

Caddell acknowledges that Davidians fired at ATF agents, but says it's irrelevant who fired first. ``The ATF never had the right to fire willy-nilly into a building filled with noncombatants,'' he said.

Attorneys for the Branch Davidians contend that the government could have been responsible for at least two of three fires that started on April 19.

Bradford said the government has ``very strong and convincing'' evidence that sect members started the fires. However, the government has acknowledged that some tear gas canisters were potentially incendiary.

The lawsuit also alleges that the government was criminally negligent by ignoring orders to have firefighting equipment on the scene.

Bradford says firefighters were not allowed near the compound because they were in danger from potentially explosive munitions stored by the Davidians.

U.S. District Judge Walter Smith ordered a field test in March simulating the siege. Both sides hoped the test, recorded on infrared tape, would determine what caused more than 100 flashes to show up on the FBI's original infrared tape.

A report last month by Vector Data Systems, the court's infrared expert, said the flashes were sunlight reflecting off debris, not government gunfire.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs say the test violated protocol agreed upon by both sides and that the court-appointed expert is less than neutral. Vector is owned by Anteon Corp., which has done work for U.S. intelligence agencies, the defense department and the FBI.

Bradford said Vector's analysis was a ``truly independent evaluation and a very thorough evaluation'' of the infrared tapes.