Nine months after the conflagration in Waco, Tex., that ended a 51-day standoff with members of the Branch Davidian sect, 11 surviving Davidians will go on trial in San Antonio this morning on charges that they conspired to murder the federal agents who stormed their compound.
The trial, likely to last eight to 10 weeks, is expected to yield new details about the ill-fated raid last Feb. 28 in which four agents of the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were killed, along with six cult members.
But the trial is fraught with problems for the prosecution, chiefly because government investigators themselves have criticized the raid that led to the long standoff as poorly conceived and executed. Investigators said in a report last fall that the operation should have been scrubbed after U.S. officials learned that the Davidians had been tipped off.
The raid went awry when ATF agents, with scant planning or support, attempted to serve search and arrest warrants on cult leader David Koresh for allegedly storing an arsenal of illegal weapons in the fortress-like compound he called Mt. Carmel.
The ensuing seven-week siege ended April 19, when FBI agents rammed the rural compound’s main building with armored vehicles and pumped tear gas into it. The building erupted in flames, and Koresh and more than 80 of his followers were killed--some apparently shooting themselves, others killed by fellow Davidians.
Armed with last fall’s critical report, which included charges that ATF officials lied about their conduct, defense attorneys are expected to attack the credibility of officials who will testify for prosecutors about the Branch Davidians’ alleged murder conspiracy.
Compounding the prosecution’s problems, defense sources say, is that the Mt. Carmel compound was so thoroughly ravaged by fire that the physical evidence obtained from the compound is open to question.
Gary Coker, an attorney for Sheila Martin, a surviving Branch Davidian who was not indicted, said the report could have a major effect on the trial’s outcome.
“I think people see that almost everybody from (former ATF director Stephen E.) Higgins on down has at one time or another lied about this case,” Coker told reporters in Houston. “And if they would lie about those matters, why wouldn’t they lie about other matters that are specific as to criminal charges?”
Higgins abruptly retired last fall. Five other ATF officials criticized in the report took early retirement or were suspended.
Selection of a jury is likely to take three to five days, after which testimony will begin, court officials said. U.S. District Judge Walter Smith moved the trial from Waco to San Antonio, 180 miles to the south, on grounds that it would be hard to find 12 jurors in the Waco area who did not already have opinions about the case.
Smith has ordered that names of prospective jurors be kept secret. They will be identified only by numbers to prevent them or their families from being harassed.
The judge has issued a gag order to prevent prosecutors and defense attorneys from discussing the case publicly.
The prosecution is being led by the husband-and-wife team of Ray and LeRoy Jahn, the two assistant U.S. attorneys who obtained the 1982 conviction of Charles W. Harrelson for the assassination of U.S. District Judge John H. Wood Jr. of San Antonio.
The judge was shot in the back outside his San Antonio apartment in 1979, a crime that prompted a three-year, $7-million investigation by the FBI. Harrelson was sentenced to two consecutive life terms. Evidence indicated that he had been hired by a convicted drug dealer.
Former Branch Davidian member Kathryn Schroeder will be the government’s key witness. Initially indicted with the others, Schroeder pleaded guilty in September to reduced charges of “impeding federal agents with a deadly weapon” as part of a negotiated plea agreement. Her husband, Michael, died in February’s raid.
While the nature of her testimony is not known by outside observers, Schroeder is expected to serve as the “inside witness” that is crucial to conspiracy prosecutions, government sources said.
Two other women who left the compound soon after the siege began may be summoned as witnesses by the prosecution. Catherine Mattson, 75, and Margaret Lawson, 77, were initially jailed, but charges against them were dropped.
In addition, prosecutors are expected to play many hours of tape-recorded telephone conversations between cult members and federal negotiators during the long siege, as well as tape-recorded sounds captured by eavesdropping devices sent into the compound with food, videotapes and other items.
Some of the 11 sect members on trial left the compound early in the siege, while others escaped during the fire. Three of the defendants are British--Renos Avraam, Norman Allison and Livingston Fagan. The others, all U.S. citizens, are Brad Eugene Branch, Kevin Whitecliff, Clive Doyle, Jamie Castillo, Paul Fatta, Woodrow Kendrick, Graeme Craddock and Ruth Ottman Riddle.
A grand jury indictment accuses them of conspiring “with malice aforethought” to kill ATF agents “on account of the performance of their duties.” According to the charges, this conspiracy was led by Koresh, who “would and did advocate and encourage an armed confrontation” with the ATF.
The defendants, if convicted of conspiracy, face up to life imprisonment. Under federal conspiracy laws, anyone who contributes in any way to criminal actions by a group may be convicted. The defendants are also charged with lesser weapon offenses.
Jackson reported from Washington and Hart from Houston.