The body of Anna Hughes, who died in 1968, lay in a casket next to the rotunda at the McLennan County Courthouse on Wednesday.
Words were spoken over her, on the third floor, where attorneys argued whether her body could be introduced as evidence in the trial of eight members of the Branch Davidian Seventh-day Adventists accused of trying to murder George Roden, who claims to be the messiah.
The curious gawked at the casket and nearby church members most of the day.
Anna Hughes never made it into the courtroom.
Judge Herman Fitts ruled that jurors could not view the casket or the corpse when defense attorney Gary Coker asked to submit Hughes’ casket as evidence.
“Not in the courtroom,” he said firmly.
Likewise, McLennan County Judge Raymond Matkin entered the courtroom Wednesday afternoon and talked with Coker. Matkin had been out of town most of the day, and when he went back to his office, he saw the casket. He didn’t like what he saw.
“I didn’t think the rotunda of the courthouse was an appropriate place to have a casket,” Matkin said. “So I told them they needed to get it out and right away. I don’t want to interfere with the evidence in a criminal trial, but the remains of a body are not appropriate to have sitting in a public building. I told them if they couldn’t move it, we’d get some of the jail trustees and get it moved. They moved it.”
Members of the Branch Davidians — whose leader, Vernon Howell, and seven other members are on trial — brought Hughes’ casket to the courtroom early.
Her journey began two years ago, though, when Roden dug her body up while trying to relocate a cemetery on 77 acres near Elk that he called Rodenville. Branch Davidians, who since have claimed the land on the strength of a 1979 civil ruling, have renamed it Mount Carmel Center.
It had that name when Anna Hughes died there in 1968.
Roden, whom Coker called as a witness Wednesday, said he dug up Hughes’ casket Oct. 15, 1986, from the cemetery at Rodenville and put it in the church. A year later, he moved the casket because he wanted to have atonement services in the church.
“We were going to have people in the church and because of Mosaic law, which says that a casket causes a church to be unclean, we have to remove it,” Roden told Coker.
Coker later asked Roden about the defendants’ claim that he tried to resurrect Hughes. The eight men say they were on the property to get photographs to support a charge of corpse abuse against Roden.
“Did you attempt to resurrect the body?” Coker asked.
“I attempted three times, yes,” Roden said. “In accordance with what Christians commonly recognize as Easter services, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
After failing to resurrect her, Roden moved Hughes’ body from the church into a mechanic’s shed. The defendants say they stayed at Rodenville for hours, searching for her body Nov. 3, 1987, the day of a shootout between themselves and Roden.
The Branch Davidians also had brought Hughes’ casket to Waco on Tuesday. It stayed in an old green Chevrolet van parked by the courthouse the entire day. Perry Jones, whose son, David Jones, is on trial, stayed with the van.
Perry Jones had buried Hughes.
“It’s necessary to have her body here,” he said. “I certainly don’t relish it being here. I know she’s someone’s mother, someone’s grandmother. I know how I would feel if she were my mother, my grandmother. It’s just something that had to be done. We’re going to rebury her as soon as we can. It’s distasteful but necessary. The district attorney contends we went out there to kill George. This is why we went out there.”
After Fitts ruled the casket would not be admitted as evidence, he excused the jury. Then eight men, six of them defendants, walked to the second floor and awkwardly hoisted the approximately 500-pound casket, which had no handles, and carried it to the steps of the courthouse and slowly down the street.
“Go slow, don’t try to rush it,” one of the men yelled.
Defendant Floyd Houtman grimaced and sucked in air as the men struggled to keep the casket steady.
When they reached the sidewalk, the pace picked up and the men moved quickly to the van, parked near Fifth Street and Washington Avenue. TV cameramen, a news photographer and church members made a ragged cortege.
The doors of the van were opened and the casket was slid in, causing the van to shake.
Defendant Greg Summers, who had led the way, took off his blue pin-stripe suit and pounded the smudges left by the casket with his hand.
“This isn’t justice, he said. “This is only a game to them. God sees everything.”
The men left and returned to the courtroom. Several church members remained with the body of Anna Hughes.
Her journey was almost over.