Attorneys associated with the Branch Davidians are taking heart from an Idaho jury’s verdict in the Randy Weaver case.
Jurors acquitted the white separatist Thursday of charges that he murdered a federal marshal. Weaver’s wife, Vicki, and son, Samuel, were also killed in a standoff between authorities and Weaver, whom they sought to arrest for selling an illegal weapon to an undercover agent.
“It ought to send a message to government prosecutors,” said Waco attorney Richard Ferguson. “But they’re kind of hardheaded. There are restraints to what police can do. They have to operate within certain bounds. When they step outside those bounds, and precipitate an action, they don’t have the right to send the people involved to prison.”
Ferguson represents Brad Branch, a Branch Davidian accused of conspiracy to murder a federal officer. Other cult members facing the same charge are Jaime Castillo, Clive Doyle, Kathryn Schroeder and Kevin Whitecliff.
The charges stem from the Feb. 28 raid on Mount Carmel, the Branch Davidians’ compound 10 miles east of Waco. Agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms attempted to serve an arrest warrant to cult leader Vernon Howell for possession of automatic weapons.
Four ATF agents and six Branch Davidians died in the resulting shootout.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Bill Johnston declined Friday to discuss the ramifications of the Weaver verdict on criminal cases involving the Branch Davidians.
But a law professor at Baylor University said he believes federal prosecutors in Texas will seek to learn from the Weaver case.
“Certainly the prosecutors here have something to learn from the acquittal,” said professor Brian Serr. “My guess is they’ll shortly be in touch with lawyers who prosecuted the Weaver case. They’ll find out what went wrong. They’ll talk about the strategy used by the defense that was effective. They’ll ask prosecutors what the ‘bad’ facts were on their said and what they would do differently if they could try the case again. There’s a lot they can learn.”
Riling a coiled snake
But some attorneys, like Gary Coker of Waco, question whether government prosecutors will change their tactics.
Coker represents several Branch Davidians being held as material witnesses. In 1988, he successfully defended Howell and seven followers from charges that they tried to murder rival prophet George Roden.
“The government doesn’t seem to learn very fast,” Coker said. “This whole situation is kind of like a snake coiled in a box. The snake is down there, not bothering anybody. Leave it alone and nothing will ever happen. That was the situation here. These people were ever not going to bother anybody. But the government has to go in and stick its hand in the box and stir it up.”
Houston attorney Dick DeGuerin — who was to represent Howell until the April 19 fire killed Howell and almost 80 followers — believes the Randy Weaver verdict bodes well for defense attorneys representing the Branch Davidians.
A ‘Rambo agency’
DeGuerin called ATF a “Rambo agency out of control.”
“It was certainly a good sign that jurors couldn’t be fooled by federal agents and could see through their whitewash and the spin they put on the evidence,” DeGuerin said.
“They saw it for what it was: a massive use of illegal force by the government,” he continued. “And, if anything, Randy Weaver had less justification for his actions than the Davidians. Weaver had been in custody and jumped bail. None of the Davidians had been arrested or notified of anything. Without provocation, they were assaulted by 100 officers using lethal force. Of course, they fought back.”
Both the ATF and the Branch Davidians have accused the other of firing first in the Feb. 28 shootout.
Serr said the law does allow police to fire first if they feel threatened.
“Police don’t have to take the first bullet,” he said. “In some instances, police do have the right to shoot first. For example, if a gun is pointed at them . . . The question should come down to whether police fired first without justification for firing first.”
In the Randy Weaver case, the defense chose to rest its case without calling any witnesses.
Jurors had already heard how Samuel Weaver was shot in the back and how a government sniper shot and killed Vicki Weaver, who was holding a baby.
“A jury can acquit defendants if they become disgusted with the government’s action,” Serr said. “It’s called jury nullification. They just decide they don’t like the way the government operated.
“They’re not instructed they can do that. But it’s a constitutional right,” he said. “Primarily, there are two checks on government power: the right to vote and the ability to serve on juries.”