McLennan County Justice of the Peace John Cabaniss said Friday that he will release final causes of death next week in the cases of the five Branch Davidians assigned to him.
Three other local justices of the peace say they will probably wait until the end of the year to hold inquests on the more than 80 remaining Branch Davidians, who died either during the Feb. 28 raid by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms or the April 19 fire that leveled their two-story compound 10 miles east of Waco.
“I don’t feel the same as they do,” Cabaniss said. “I feel it’s time to end this. I figure I have all the information I need. In my opinion, I think an autopsy is all that’s needed. I’m just ruling on the probable causes of death.”
Justices of the peace David Pareya of West, Cindy Evans of Waco and James Collier of Mart may not hold their inquests until after the criminal trials of 11 surviving Branch Davidians, scheduled for January in San Antonio.
Pareya said the delay is needed to pinpoint how the Branch Davidians died.
“The manner of death is what’s hard,” Pareya said. “How did the death occur? Was it suicide? Was it homicide? Was it accidental? That’s the hard part.”
Pareya said the justices will probably sit En banc, meaning the will hold their inquests as a group. It is a move intended to enable the expert witnesses in the case to testify at one time. The justices of the peace are expected to call representatives of the BATF, FBI and Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s office.
Collier has said he may subpoena audio tapes that FBI officials such as Special Agent Bob Ricks of Tulsa claim prove that the Branch Davidians deliberately set the fire that engulfed them.
“We’re looking over the cases to determine which ones merit further testimony from the agencies involved,” Pareya said.
Autopsies are complete on the Branch Davidians, those identified and unidentified, Pareya said. The Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s office completed the autopsies a couple of weeks ago.
A refrigerated building built next to the medical examiner’s office still houses most of the bodies.
Cabaniss said he will release the bodies under his jurisdiction for burial after he formally declares the cause of death.
Pareya said there’s not feud between the justices of the peace over how to handle the inquests. There’s just a difference of opinion.
“You have to understand,” Pareya said. “There are hard cases and there are easy cases. But, as a judge, I’d really hate to have to reopen a case because additional information came out at a subsequent time.”
Cabaniss, however, said he has seen enough and will close out his cases — which includes that of Steve Schneider, a Wisconsin man who acted as Vernon Howell’s top lieutenant during the raid although he had lost his wife, Judy, to the cult leader.