Advertisement
Share

L.A. Civil Rights Attorney Joins Ruby Ridge Case

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The tiny northern Idaho county facing the daunting prospect of prosecuting FBI Agent Lon Horiuchi for his role in the 1992 siege at Ruby Ridge has authorized the appointment of Stephen Yagman, the outspoken civil rights lawyer from Los Angeles, as a special prosecutor in the case.

Yagman, a combative attorney who has spent years tangling with Southern California police agencies over allegations of brutality and excessive force, will assist Boundary County prosecutor Denise Woodbury in Horiuchi’s trial. The FBI sharpshooter is charged with involuntary manslaughter in the remote mountaintop siege that became a rallying point for the anti-government movement in America.

The Boundary County Board of Commissioners on Monday authorized the appointment of a deputy prosecutor to assist in the case. U.S. District Judge Robert M. Takasugi swore in Yagman on Wednesday in Los Angeles, saying: “Mr. Yagman, you’re on a new adventure.”

Boundary County officials said Yagman’s appointment will help even the playing field in a case that will pit them against lawyers from the Justice Department, a top Washington, D.C., law firm and a former Idaho Supreme Court justice.

Advertisement

“We’re already seeing a lot of dragging of the feet by the federal government, making things very difficult for a little teeny county,” said Boundary County Commissioner Kevin Lederhos. “We obviously feel . . . we need all the professional help we can achieve.”

Yagman has earned a national reputation for his aggressive pursuit of alleged police misconduct and his blunt criticism of top political officials--and of the federal judges who oversee his cases. He has won millions of dollars in judgments against Southland police agencies and has sought to hold police officers personally liable for their conduct.

*

The appointment is an indication that the prosecution of Horiuchi, accused of fatally shooting the wife of anti-government militant Randy Weaver, will become a forum in which the FBI faces scrutiny for the shoot-on-sight orders under which Horiuchi operated.

“I personally believe that this case will be a trial of the FBI, of its director--Mr. [Louis J.] Freeh--and of Atty. Gen. Janet Reno,” Yagman said. “Both Mr. Freeh and Ms. Reno have taken positions that the conduct of Mr. Horiuchi was lawful. And if that conduct . . . is found by a jury to be unlawful, that finding also will encompass the notion that Mr. Freeh and Ms. Reno have backed up unlawful conduct--which in my opinion would be a disgrace for those two federal officials.”

Horiuchi’s fatal shot is one of the enduring question marks in the Ruby Ridge saga, which also left Deputy U.S. Marshal William Degan and Weaver’s 14-year-old son, Sammy, dead.

Randy Weaver and his friend Kevin Harris were wounded in the siege, which began when Degan and other marshals crept up on the remote cabin where Weaver and his family were entrenched. After Harris and Sammy Weaver fired at the marshals, killing Degan, Horiuchi and the rest of the FBI’s hostage rescue team were called in.

With one federal marshal already dead, sharpshooters were ordered to shoot any armed male on sight. Horiuchi allegedly fired at Harris as he was running back to the cabin and struck Vicki Weaver as she stood inside the cabin door, holding her infant daughter.

Federal officials have argued that Horiuchi’s shot was justified--even without the shoot-on-sight rules of engagement--because Harris had already participated in the firefight that killed Degan, had pointed his gun toward a helicopter and constituted a significant threat to officers if he succeeded in returning to the cabin.

Facing a five-year statute of limitations, Boundary County prosecutors in August filed state charges against Horiuchi and Harris. The murder charge against Harris, who already was tried and acquitted in federal court on a similar charge, was dismissed after a judge ruled that he could not be tried twice.

County prosecutors contend that Horiuchi did not act with malice but fired his gun “in a reckless, careless or negligent manner” by failing to determine whether anyone other than Harris was standing inside the door of the cabin.

Horiuchi’s lawyers are seeking to move the case to federal court. There, Horiuchi can assert a claim that he is immune from state prosecution because he was acting within the scope of official duties.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals already has raised doubts about such an immunity defense, at least in a civil context. In a damage suit filed by Harris, the appeals court in September said that law enforcement officers should have known that the special rules of engagement for the Ruby Ridge siege constituted “a gross deviation from constitutional principles and a wholly unwarranted return to a lawless and arbitrary Wild West school of law enforcement.”

The question of jurisdiction is important not only procedurally, but substantively: A state jury in Boundary County, where anti-FBI sentiment still runs high, might be more likely to convict than a federal jury in distant Boise.

The appointment of Yagman, 53, an expert in civil rights law with years of practice in federal court, will provide a boost for the prosecution if the case is moved into federal court, Woodbury said.

Yagman has earned his reputation largely by filing federal claims against police agencies accused of unlawful searches, arrests and shootings.

Often, he takes cases that no other lawyer will touch; earlier this year, he filed suit on behalf of the family of one of the men involved in the notorious North Hollywood bank shootout, claiming that the man bled to death after police left him lying without medical treatment.

Yagman won damages totaling $55,000 on behalf of the families of suspects shot by members of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Special Investigations Unit after the 1990 holdup of a McDonald’s restaurant in Sunland. In that case, Yagman established the right of a child yet unborn at the time of the shooting to collect damages from the police.

*

Yet it is Yagman’s public sparring with the federal judiciary that has gained him much of his notoriety. He once accused the former chief judge in Los Angeles, U.S. District Judge Manuel Real, of suffering from mental disorders. More recently, he was briefly ordered suspended from federal court practice, a decision that subsequently was reversed, after calling U.S. District Judge William Keller “dishonest . . . a bully and one of the worst judges in the United States.”

It is the law enforcement community in Southern California, however, that has been the main target for Yagman, who has said he believes an overzealous police establishment has become infected with “mad cop disease.”

“England soon may have to slaughter all its cows to protect its population,” he said recently. “How shall we in Southern California safeguard our population from the folks with badges who are sworn to protect and to serve?”

The Boundary County Board of Commissioners authorized a payment of $1 a year for Yagman’s services.

“I’m not going to take the dollar,” Yagman said. “This is the kind of thing you do because it’s the right thing to do.”

Times staff writer Hector Tobar contributed to this story.


Advertisement