A county prosecutor in Idaho announced Thursday that he will not try the FBI sniper who shot and killed the wife of white separatist Randy Weaver during the Ruby Ridge standoff in 1992. The decision came only a week after a federal appeals court ruled that the sniper could be tried for involuntary manslaughter in the incident.
Boundary County prosecutor Brett Benson disclosed his decision in a press release that said it would be difficult to prove the case in court. Charges against FBI sniper Lon Horiuchi had been filed by Benson’s predecessor, who was voted out of office in last year’s election.
“The Ruby Ridge incident was a tragedy that deeply affected and divided many of the citizens of this county and country,” Benson’s statement said. “It is our hope that this decision will begin the healing process that is so long overdue.”
The case had been closely watched by both anti-government groups that saw the shooting as another example of the federal government’s abuse of power and legal experts who considered it a test of whether federal agents are immune from state prosecution.
Attorney Stephen Yagman of Los Angeles, who was appointed by Benson’s predecessor as special prosecutor in the case, was angered at Benson’s decision.
“In order for me to agree to drop these charges, someone would have had to kill me first,” Yagman said from his office in Venice. “It was done without consulting me, sneakily and behind my back.”
The timing of Benson’s announcement caught many off guard, but not the decision itself. The specter of a rural county mounting what would have become a massive lawsuit against a federal agency loomed large, especially during Benson’s election campaign. As a candidate he had signaled that he had little appetite to pursue the case.
In a region teeming with anti-government and white supremacist groups and conspiracy theorists, the decision bolstered widely held convictions about the power of government agencies, particularly the FBI.
John Trochmann of the Militia of Montana, who was at the Ruby Ridge standoff, sharply criticized Benson’s action.
“The thing that comes to mind is, whose pocket is he in? It’s pathetic. It’s state sovereignty that was abandoned by a county prosecutor.”
Weaver, who is living in Iowa, could not be reached for comment Thursday. But Yagman spoke to him and characterized his reaction as “chagrined.”
“He trusts that I will make good on my pledge to him that sniper Horiuchi will be brought to justice,” Yagman said. “He knows that these things take a very long time. It’s very, very difficult to bring down the king, as it were. He’s steeled to stay the course until justice is done.”
Yagman said that because Idaho has no statute of limitations on homicide, he held out hope that a different prosecutor could launch a case at any time in the future.
The federal government had earlier declined to prosecute Horiuchi. But last week’s decision by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals had cleared the way for the Idaho prosecutors to try him.
The 6-5 ruling by the court held that immunity cannot be granted unless there is an evidentiary hearing to determine whether Horiuchi acted unlawfully. If a judge at such a hearing rules that Horiuchi acted unlawfully, the case could go before a jury.
A U.S Senate subcommittee that reviewed the events of the standoff said in 1995 that it “helped to weaken the bond of trust that must exist between ordinary Americans and our law enforcement agencies.”
The Circuit Court’s ruling, which reversed two earlier judgments, echoed the sentiments of that subcommittee.
Writing for the majority, Judge Alex Kozinski said, “When federal officers violate the Constitution, either through malice or excessive zeal, they can be held accountable for violating the state’s criminal laws.”
In dissent, Judge Michael D. Hawkins said the ruling would have a “chilling effect” on federal law enforcement personnel.
The standoff in the rugged mountains near Bonners Ferry began when federal agents went to Weaver’s cabin after he failed to appear in court to face charges of selling two sawed-off shotguns to agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
Federal marshals and ATF agents had been watching the house for months when they were confronted by the family dog, Striker, at an intersection near the Weaver property. Agents shot and killed the dog, then exchanged fire with Weaver’s 14-year-old son, Samuel, killing the teen. In the ensuing gun battle, U.S. Marshal Michael Degan was shot and killed.
Weaver and a family friend, Kevin Harris, rushed out to tend to the fallen boy and the men removed the boy’s body and placed it in a birthing shed near the cabin.
Later, Weaver and Harris emerged from the cabin to check on the body. Horiuchi concluded from his sniper’s position that the two armed men constituted a threat to a government helicopter hovering above the area. He opened fire, hitting Weaver in the shoulder. The men dashed back toward the cabin as Vicki Weaver ushered them in from the doorway. Horiuchi fired again, attempting to hit Harris. But his round tore through Vicki Weaver’s neck before wounding Harris.
Vicki Weaver fell to the ground, with the couple’s 10-month-old baby in her arms.
Weaver and Harris eventually surrendered, but not before the entire tableau was reported around the country. The standoff, along with an FBI confrontation near Waco, Texas, that led to the deaths of about 80 cult members in 1993, helped to galvanize the nation’s anti-government movement.
Both men were acquitted of murder, conspiracy and other federal charges, although Weaver was convicted of failing to appear for trial on the firearms charges.
In 1995 the government paid Weaver and his three surviving children $3.1 million for the death of his wife and teenage son.
Last summer the Justice Department settled the last civil suit stemming from the siege. While admitting no wrongdoing, the government paid Harris $380,000 to drop his $10-million suit.