HOUSTON — Dealing a sharp blow to the government, jurors on Saturday acquitted all 11 members of the Branch Davidian cult accused of murder and murder-conspiracy in the deaths of four federal agents who stormed their compound near Waco, Tex., a year ago.
Most of the defendants were convicted of lesser charges. Five were convicted of aiding and abetting voluntary manslaughter in the deaths of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents. Those five and two others were also found guilty of weapons possession charges. Four cult members were cleared of all charges.
The murder and murder-conspiracy charges would have carried a maximum punishment of life in prison. Conviction on the voluntary manslaughter charges could bring sentences of up to 10 years. No date was set for sentencing.
Although most of the defendants were convicted of some offenses, the acquittals on the most serious charges indicated that jurors believed the ATF--and not cult members, whose lawyers had argued they acted only in self-defense--was largely responsible for the violence.
Defense attorney Terry Kirk sought to make that point in telling reporters outside the courthouse: "The nerve of the federal government to do what they did on Feb. 28, and then come into a courtroom and file a brief saying: 'Oh, if it's a federal agent, you don't have the right of self-defense, you have to take a bullet in the head.'
"Well, the judge didn't buy it, the American people most assuredly would not have bought it, and that's the message the jury sent."
Anaheim resident Ruth Moser, the mother of cult member Sherri Jewell, who died in the fire that ended the 51-day standoff, agreed with defense attorneys' claims that the Davidians acted in self-defense when they fired at federal agents during the raid.
"Good grief, they're not to blame," she said of the cult members. "They're not the ones to storm themselves and shoot themselves."
Ray Jahn, the chief prosecutor, said in reaction to the verdicts that "these agents were a group of very brave men and women who walked into a murderous ambush and demonstrated their courage."
Asked if the verdict was a statement against the use of excessive force by police agencies, Jahn said that "if there was excessive force, that needs to be resolved in the court, not from the barrel of a gun."
"Those agents did not die in vain," said prosecutor Bill Johnston, tears in his eyes. "I want to tell everyone in law enforcement throughout this wonderful country and especially in the ATF to keep their chin up. . . . Seven individuals out of 11 have been convicted."
Atty. Gen. Janet Reno told reporters in Washington that the convictions on lesser counts "indicate that the killing of these four ATF agents was unjustified."
She said federal law enforcement officials will focus on developing "systems and procedures to see that a tragedy like this will never happen again."
Members of the jury were not available for comment. Jurors deliberated for four days after hearing six weeks of testimony in a San Antonio courtroom. The case was moved from Waco because of pretrial publicity.
Jurors reached their decision just short of the first anniversary of the bloody raid on Feb. 28, 1993, in which the agents and six Davidians died. The assault led to a 51-day standoff at the cult's Mt. Carmel compound.
On April 19, FBI armored vehicles battered the cult compound and pumped in tear gas in an effort to end the standoff. Hours later, the compound went up in flames. Prosecutors claimed cult members set the blaze in a mass suicide.
Cult leader David Koresh and about 80 followers, including 18 children, died. Koresh and some other Davidians had been shot. However, a number of cult members, including most of the defendants, either left the compound during the standoff or escaped the inferno.
The verdicts brought tears of joy from several defendants.
Clive Doyle, a 52-year-old native Australian who is a naturalized U.S. citizen, was among those acquitted of all charges. He wept when he told reporters outside the courthouse: "I'm sorry there are four agents that are dead and a lot more that are wounded. Personally, I believe that those in charge of their agencies caused that.
"That's my personal conviction, but we lost 85 of our friends and family too, and it was unnecessary."
Woodrow (Bob) Kendrick, 63, another defendant freed Saturday, said through his tears that he is "still proud to be a Branch Davidian." He described Koresh as having "had more compassion for all humankind than anyone I have ever met. . . . He loved the children like Christ did 2,000 years ago."
The lone female defendant, Ruth Riddle, was convicted of a firearms violation, but U.S. District Judge Walter Smith Jr. promptly invalidated that decision on grounds that it did not apply to her case.
Riddle, 30, a Canadian citizen, and Norman Allison, a 29-year-old Briton who also was acquitted, are in the United States illegally and will be deported by immigration officials.