The celebration was muted Monday at the McLennan County Courthouse when jurors found seven of eight defendants accused of trying to murder self-styled prophet George Roden not guilty.
Jurors split on Vernon Howell, 28, the man Branch Davidian Seventh-day Adventists actually consider a prophet.
Judge Herman Fitts declared a mistrial in Howell’s case.
“We wanted a total victory,” said defendant Stanley Sylvia, 50. “I actually shed a tear in there for brother Vernon. He’s a real hero. He saved Floyd’s and my life. They made George out to be a real Rambo. That was a lot of propaganda.”
Prosecutor Denise Wilkerson said the district attorney’s office will pursue the case against Howell.
“We don’t intend to dismiss the charge,” she said. “The jury verdict doesn’t change our opinion s to his guilt or innocence. It only shows we failed to prove our case.”
Howell was subdued immediately after the verdict.
“I don’t care if I go to prison,” he said. “I just didn’t want these men to go. If I go, I’ll convert the prison. The decision is in God’s hands. Who knows the minds of men? I’ll wait on God.”
Jubilant defense attorney Gary Coker, however, said Howell won, too, in the sometimes bizarre 10-day trial.
“He won more than he lost,” Coker said. “But it’s up to the district attorney’s office what happens. It depends on if they want revenge or justice. The jury did almost everything it could to tell them their case was no good.”
As jurors left the courtroom, one woman hugged a defendant and jurors and defendants clogged the hallway talking.
“The lady on the end would smile and I’d think, ‘She likes us,’ ” a Branch Davidian woman said to a juror. “The rest of you, though, I couldn’t tell.”
Juror Sid Berry of Waco told the crowd he thought Howell was innocent.
“The state didn’t prove a thing,” he said. “I don’t think they should retry Vernon. He’s not guilty of attempted murder. Look at him.”
Jurors didn’t believe the defendants planned to kill Roden, 50, said jury foreman Randall Toups of Waco.
“We didn’t really believe they had a murder scheme,” he said. “If the boys had planned to murder George Roden, he’d be dead. I went right along with them on that. The greatest injustice was that these people were brought to trial. They didn’t invade another man’s property. George was on their land illegally.
Toups said the testimony of Roden — who was wounded in the hand in the shootout with Howell and seven other Branch Davidians on Nov.3, 1987 — hindered the prosecution.
Wilkerson and El-Hadi Shabazz argued that the eight defendants went to kill Roden to claim 77 acres of church property near Elk. The defendants said they went to document a charge of corpse abuse so Roden would be arrested. They then planned to move onto the property using a 1979 state district court injunction awarding the land to the Branch Davidians, the defendants said.
On the witness stand last week, Roden admitted trying to raise Anna Hughes’ body from the dead. He also claimed to be the messiah.
“A lot of jurors commented that they felt frightened of him,” Toups said. “They didn’t feel his testimony was honest. They just didn’t have any faith in what he said.”
Wilkerson said jurors expressed sympathy for the Branch Davidians’ effort to get the land, though not necessarily their use of weapons.
“I think the trial came down to a sympathetic cause on one side and George Roden on the other,” she said.
Coker, who tried unsuccessfully to introduce Hughes’ casket into evidence, said the character of the Branch Davidian defendants stood out against Roden and the camouflage clothing and assault rifles paraded by the prosecution.
“Live testimony beats hardware every day,” Coker said. “Hardware doesn’t talk very well. An assault rifle can’t say, ‘I shot to kill.’ Our witnesses are nice people with no criminal record who don’t believe they’re Jesus Christ.”
Jurors had deliberated since Thursday. About noon Monday, Fitts complied with their request to review testimony regarding whether Howell fired at Roden or the tree Roden hid behind. Jurors heard a tape of Shabazz’s cross-examination of Howell, in which Howell said he fired at the tree.
At 2:55 p.m., Fitts announced the jurors had reached a verdict on seven of the eight defendants.
He declined to reveal the verdict.
Coker, however, waved his arms like an umpire and motioned to the defendants that they were safe.
“You understand what is going on, don’t you?” he asked. “I think they’ve acquitted seven.”
Toups sent Fitts a note at 3:35 p.m. and told him jurors were still deadlocked 9-3 (for acquittal) on Howell after nine votes. Fitts called the jury into the courtroom and asked if anyone felt further deliberation would lead to a verdict. No juror raised his hand. Fitts read their verdicts and dismissed them.
As the Branch Davidians trickled into the courthouse, Coker paid tribute to their devotion to the defendants: Howell; Sylvia; Paul Fatta, 30: Gregory Summers, 23; James Riddle, 28: David Jones, 33; Peter Hipsman, 23; and Floyd Houtman, 55.
The Branch Davidians brought their young and old to the courtroom each day, prompting some criticism that they turned the court into a kindergarten.
“Their worst habit is that they don’t have any bad habits,” Coker said. “They don’t smoke; they don’t drink; they don’t adorn themselves with material goods. If they were in the majority, half the industries in America would go under. I think they helped. They were here every day. The jury saw what kind of people they were.”