A Waco federal judge slapped a gag order Thursday on attorneys preparing for the upcoming criminal trial of 11 Branch Davidians.
U.S. District Judge Walter S. Smith Jr. issued his order in the wake of a public deposition the day before of cult member Marjorie Thomas, 30, who was not charged in the case. Apparently, Smith was not aware that both the U.S. Attorney’s office and defense attorneys agreed to allow journalists to attend the deposition.
Smith’s reaction to the news was swift.
Early Thursday, courthouse security officers were under order to keep the news media off the second floor of the Federal Courthouse, where the deposition entered its second and final day.
The gag order followed, issued just before noon.
Smith forbid attorneys from either side from making statements that could prejudice the case or that are not a matter of public record. The ban also extends to potential witnesses in the upcoming trial, set to start Jan. 10 in San Antonio. Smith further declared that depositions are not public record.
For anyone wondering how far-ranging his gag order was, Smith elaborated.
“Statements or information intended to influence the public opinion regarding the merits of this case are specifically designated as information which could prejudice a party,” Smith wrote.
Attorneys leaving the courthouse Thursday obeyed the gag order. Some strictly interpreted it. Waco attorney Stanley Rentz, representing cult member Graeme Craddock, declined to even comment on how broad the gag order was.
“If you were a member of a jury that was out and sent a note requesting additional information, you’d be referred back to the charge,” Rentz said. “Well, I’ll have to refer you back to the order.”
On Wednesday, Thomas, who suffered severe burns in the April 19 fire that destroyed Mount Carmel, reported that cult members had agreed to a suicide pact in the event of cult leader Vernon Howell’s death. However, some of the Branch Davidian defendants — who were allowed to hear the deposition — disputed Thomas’ remark.
Thomas also said she did not know who fired first on Feb. 28, when four agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms died trying to arrest Howell for allegedly possessing automatic weapons. At least five cult members also died.
Federal prosecutors requested Thomas be allowed to give a deposition. She will soon return to her native England to undergo more surgery related to her burns.
Defense attorneys took Smith’s order with a dose of humor.
Outspoken Houston attorney Rocket Rosen, who represents cult member Kevin Whitecliff, feigned disappointment at being barred from talking to the news media.
“I’m filing a motion to withdraw,” he quipped.