A Waco federal judge has moved the trial of 11 Branch Davidians charged with killing four federal agents to San Antonio.
Defense attorneys had argued that publicity, pro-law enforcement sentiment in the area, billboards supplied by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms thanking residents for support, and the establishment of a memorial scholarship for the four slain ATF agents prevented cult members from getting a fair trial in Waco.
However, at least two court-appointed attorneys in the case have said they are considering asking U.S. District Judge Walter S. Smith Jr. of Waco to remove them from the case because the move will cause them hardship. Smith, who will preside over the trial, ordered the trial moved on Wednesday.
He has set jury selection to begin Jan. 10.
Defense attorneys had pushed for the trial to be moved to Austin to reduce the distance from Waco. Austin is about 100 miles south of Waco, while San Antonio is about 180 miles south.
But Smith said both federal courtrooms in Austin are assigned to sitting judges, and the Branch Davidian trial, which could last three months, would be too disrupting. There are five federal courtrooms in San Antonio.
Houston attorney Steve (Rocket) Rosen, who represents cult member Kevin A. Whitecliff, said he was not opposed to trying the case in Waco until he had been here a few times and sensed the strong community support for law enforcement.
He also watched as about a quarter of the jury pool last month in the misdemeanor theft case of cult member Rita Riddle was excused because of bias against the cult. That was a telling sign, he said.
“That kind of closed the door on Waco, Texas,” Rosen said.
A jury in McLennan County Court-at-Law No. 2 convicted Riddle. She will be sentenced next month.
Riddle is not one of those charged in murdering four ATF agents during a shootout Feb. 28 at cult leader Vernon Howell’s compound 10 miles east of Waco. At least five Davidians are also believed to have died in the gun battle that ensued when 100 agents tried to serve search and arrest warrants on Howell for weapons violations. Howell was also known as David Koresh.
The gun battle started a 51-day standoff with federal authorities that ended April 19, when fire swept through the compound after the FBI rammed the building with tanks and inserted tear gas.
The fire, which federal authorities say was started by the Davidians, led to the deaths of Howell and as many as 85 of his followers, including 17 children.
Cult member Kathryn Schroeder, who has been charged with murder, pleaded guilty last month to a lesser charge of forcibly resisting arrest. She is expected to testify against other cult members at trial.
Waco attorney Stanley Rentz, who represents Graeme Leonard Craddock, said that while he agrees with the decision to move the trial, he is considering asking Smith to take him off the case because the move to San Antonio and lengthy trial would prove a hardship on his solo practice.
“. . . A law office is like a shop. You have to be there to manage it,” Rentz said.
Killeen attorney Gene Silverblatt, who represents Livingstone Fagan, will ask Smith if he will replace him with another court-appointed attorney.
Despite the inconvenience to his practice, Silverblatt agrees with Smith’s decision.
“I did not believe it was in the best interest of justice for the trial to be held in Waco, and one of the reasons I have cited is that I believe it would put an enormous pressure on Waco’s citizens to have the spotlight on them and their city again,” Silverblatt said. “I want to try the case on the merit and not the publicity.”
Rosen and Austin attorney Gerry Morris, who represents cult member Woodrow Kendrick, said the move could give the husband-and-wife government prosecution team of Ray and Leroy Jahn an advantage.
Both are from San Antonio, headquarters for the federal Western District of Texas, which includes Waco.
“It helps the government,” Rosen said. “Jahn is at home there.”
Morris, too, said the move is good to prevent Waco form going under the microscope again.
“People in Waco may have felt some pressure as jurors because their city has been identified with the incident. They may have felt as if their city, to some extent, was also on trial,” Morris added.
Other cult members set to go on trial include Norman W. Allison, Brad E. Branch, Jaime Castillo, Paul G. Fatta, Clive Doyle and Renos Avraam.