Waco/Branch Davidians

Events that many consider an atrocity began on February 28, 1993, when agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) allegedly attempted to serve a search warrant on the compound of a religious sect called the Branch Davidians outside Waco, Texas, and an arrest warrant for its leader, who went by the name David Koresh. While the agents were talking to Koresh at the front door, shots were fired; it is unclear by whom, although the Davidians suggested that it was done by some BATF agents around the corner, to kill some dogs. The agents at the door then thought they were being fired on, and began firing at the Davidians, and some of the Davidians returned fire. Koresh was hit in the side, although his wound was not fatal. The agents then attempted to break into the building, and four of them died in an unsuccessful assault, along with six Davidians, which featured automatic weapons fire from helicopters into the building where many children were housed. The agents then withdrew, and the situation became a standoff.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation Hostage Rescue Team (FBI HRT) then took over the scene, and engaged in a strange saga of negotiation and harassment that continued until they assaulted the compound fifty-one days later, on the morning of April 19, 1993. That assault brought a fire that destroyed the compound, killing most of the remaining Davidians, a total of eighty-two since the commencement of hostilities, but a few escaped and were taken into custody. Koresh was one of those who died in the fire.

The government claimed that the Davidians started the fire, and killed themselves. It does appear that some of them did kill themselves to escape being burned alive, but evidence has since come to light that the government started the fire and deliberately sought to kill the Davidians rather than capture them alive.

Eleven of the surviving Davidians were tried in federal court in early 1994 in San Antonio, Texas. Many regard it as a political trial, fraught with judicial and prosecutorial misconduct. District Judge Walter P. Smith refused to let the defense team challenge the authority for the warrant or the evidence presented by the prosecution, or to make an argument for selfdefense. When the defense team threatened to file an offer of proof that could bring a reversal on appeal, the judge offered them a deal to not do so if he would include a jury instruction that the jury could consider self-defense. The defense team, thinking that was the best deal they could get, and hoping that the jury would see through the prosecution’s case, agreed to the deal.

The jury instructions, however, were cleverly worded to confuse the jury, led by foreperson Sarah Bain, into acquitting all the defendants on all criminal charges, but convicting them on what are only enhancements, ‘‘carrying a weapon during the commission of a crime.’’ At first the judge ruled, correctly, that the defendants could not be convicted of an enhancement if they were acquitted of the crime, but then, after an ex parte meeting with the prosecution, reversed his own ruling, and imposed long prison terms on those convicted of the enhancements, saying, ‘‘The law doesn’t have to be logical.’’ Subsequent appeals brought a reduction in some of the sentences, but not a reversal of the convictions.

Independent investigators continued to bring forward evidence of government misconduct. A critical piece of such evidence was a tape provided by a whistleblower, thought to have been acting at the behest of William Colby, former CIA director, of a forward-looking infrared (FLIR) camera on an aircraft over the compound during the final assault. Experts conclude that the tape showed two government tanks bulldozing the buildings from behind, out of sight of any news cameras, and two figures firing automatic weapons into the building, in a way that seemed to be trying to prevent anyone from getting out alive. Some Davidians were found to have been crushed under the tank treads. Also revealed from evidence gathered from the ruins by the Texas Rangers were undetonated incendiary grenades of a kind available only to the government. This evidence has been released as two documentary films and tapes available to the public, the first of which won an Emmy and was nominated for an Oscar.

Experts alleged that the tanks and troops used in the final assault were personnel of the Combat Applications Groups, popularly known as Delta Force, in violation of the Posse Comitatus Act that forbids the use of Army personnel for law enforcement. Some FBI agents, in casual conversation, not for attribution, have said that the ‘‘burn out’’ of the Davidians was intentional, to kill all of them, and that the main motive was budgetary. The standoff was costing the FBI too much money.

JON ROLAND

References and Further Reading

  • Constitution Society. Waco: Massacre at Mount Carmel. Updated April 19, 2003. http://www.constitution.org/ waco/mtcarmel.htm.
  • Gazecki, William, and Dan Gifford. Waco—The Rules of Engagement. DVD. Los Angeles: Distributed by Som- Ford Entertainment, 1997.
  • Hardy, David T., and Rex Kimball. This Is Not an Assault. Philadelphia: Xlibris Corporation, June 2001.
  • Kopel, David B., and Paul H. Blackman. No More Wacos: What’s Wrong with Federal Law Enforcement and How to Fix It. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1997.
  • Reavis, Dick J. The Ashes of Waco: An Investigation. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1998.
  • Thibodeau, David, and Leon Whiteson. A Place Called Waco: A Survivor’s Story. New York: HarperCollins, 1999.

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