The trial of the 11 Branch Davidians did not answer all the questions or end the controversy swirling around last year’s tragedy that eventually destroyed the cult’s Mount Carmel compound and left at least 88 people dead. But there are lessons that must be learned as a result of the entire episode.
The most obvious lesson is that major changes need to be made in the way law enforcement agencies handle people who have beliefs outside of mainstream America.
Six months before Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents assaulted David Koresh’s Mount Carmel compound near Waco, ATF, FBI and U.S. Marshals botched an attempted arrest of white separatist Randy Weaver at his remote home in Ruby Ridge, Idaho. In the end, a deputy marshal, Weaver’s 14-month-old son and his wife were killed. A jury exonerated Weaver of all major charges.
At Mount Carmel on Feb. 28, 1993, the ATF launched its largest military-style police assault in U.S. history. It ended in the deadliest law enforcement tragedy in U.S. history, which included the deaths of four ATF agents and six Branch Davidians during the Sunday of the botched assault and at least 78 other Davidians the day the FBI decided to drive the cult members out of the compound with tanks and tear gas.
Both sides culpable
In the trial of 11 surviving Davidians, government prosecutors were unable to convince the jury to convict any of the Davidians on the major charges of murder or conspiracy to commit murder. Seven Davidians were convicted on lesser charges. Despite attempts by Attorney General Janet Reno and government prosecutors to put a pro-government spin on the verdicts, the highly publicized recent actions of government law enforcement officials have damaged the government’s credibility. For the sake of law enforcement agencies, the government and the American public, lessons must be learned.
Repeated mistakes during Rambo-style assaults by law enforcement agencies are costing the government valuable credibility by alienating law-abiding Americans. The growing practice of employing military assaults using no-knock warrants based on anonymous informants needs to be re-examined.
And nothing destroys the public’s trust quicker than having government officials stand up and tell lies to cover up their mistakes. A Treasury Department investigation found what was obvious to anyone familiar with the events unfolding at Mount Carmel. ATF officials repeatedly lied to the public and they lied with arrogance, hiding their deceptions behind the tragic deaths of four fellow agents.
Another important lesson to be learned is the need to keep law enforcement as local as possible. There were ample opportunities for the McLennan County sheriff’s department and state officials to defuse any problem at Mount Carmel, which would have avoided the resulting tragedy.
Years ago breakaway Branch Davidians warned local officials of allegations of sexual abuse of children at the cult.
In September, 1990, a private investigator provided affidavits of those abuses to local officials representing the sheriff’s office, district attorney and the office of the U.S. Attorney. The former Koresh followers said they were willing to come to Waco to back up their affidavits. No action was taken even though that same evidence was strong enough for a Michigan court to remove a child from the cult in a custody battle.
Lessons must be learned. The deaths at Mount Carmel were tragedy enough.