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5 Branch Davidians Get 40-Year Terms : Courts: Judge delivers maximum prison sentences to cult members he declares unremorseful. Lighter penalties go to three other defendants in shootout.

June 18, 1994|ROBERT L. JACKSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN ANTONIO — Declaring them unremorseful, a federal judge Friday gave maximum 40-year prison terms to five Branch Davidians for their roles in the deaths last year of four federal agents who stormed their compound outside Waco.

But U.S. District Judge Walter Smith Jr. gave lighter terms of five, 15 and 20 years to three others where mitigating circumstances seemed to apply. All the defendants were assessed fines of varying amounts.

The five defendants who were given maximum sentences had been convicted last February of voluntary manslaughter and weapons violations committed during a shootout on Feb. 28, 1993. Six cult members and four Treasury Department agents died that day as 75 agents tried to serve an arrest warrant on David Koresh, leader of the Branch Davidian cult, on charges of illegal weapons possession in his heavily fortified compound.

The defendants who received lighter terms were convicted of lesser charges. Still another three defendants were cleared of all charges. All 11 had been charged with murder and conspiracy to commit murder.

Jury forewoman Sara Bain, who attended Smith's two-day sentencing hearing in a non-official capacity, told reporters outside the courthouse that the jurors did not understand that the lesser charges carried such heavy penalties.

Bain, in tears, said that she was "just crushed" by the sentences, calling them "entirely too severe."

Under mandatory sentencing guidelines approved by Congress, the weapons charge--carrying a weapon in the commission of a violent crime--is punishable by a maximum of 30 years in prison. At the request of prosecutors and over the objections of defense attorneys, Smith imposed the maximum sentences on grounds that automatic weapons, the most destructive kind, were involved.

He added 10-year terms for voluntary manslaughter for cult members Renos Avraam, Brad Branch, Jamie Castillo, Livingston Fagan and Kevin Whitecliff. The judge also levied fines against them ranging from $2,000 to $10,000.

Smith, although acknowledging that his office had been inundated in recent weeks with pleas for leniency from friends and supporters of the defendants, said that the punishment was proper because "these defendants engaged in conspiracy to cause the death of federal agents."

He added that "not one single defendant apologized or expressed any real sorrow for the dead or injured agents."

In fact, while some Branch Davidians asked for leniency, others had stood before Smith on Thursday and hurled personal insults at him, blaming the government for the agents' deaths. Most said that they had nothing to apologize for.

Smith imposed a lesser sentence of 20 years on Graeme Craddock, who was convicted on a single charge of possessing a hand grenade, and fined him $2,000. Craddock had told the judge that he had never intended to hurt anyone and asked for credit because he had told the truth and cooperated with authorities after the government's long standoff with the cult ended.

Paul Fatta received a 15-year sentence--five years for unlawfully manufacturing and possessing machine guns and 10 years for aiding and abetting Koresh in possessing the machine guns. He was also fined $50,000. Fatta was at a gun show in Austin, Tex., on the day of the shootout.

Ruth Riddle, a Canadian and the only woman among the defendants, was given a five-year prison sentence and fined $2,500 for carrying a rifle during the shootout. The judge described her as easily manipulated.

The Feb. 28 shootout was followed by a 51-day standoff that ended when FBI agents invaded the compound with armored vehicles and injected tear gas into the frame buildings. Koresh and more than 80 of his followers, including women and children, died when fires allegedly set by Koresh's top aides engulfed the buildings.

A county coroner reported that many bodies bore gunshot wounds from automatic weapons that were stored inside the compound.

In a critical report last fall, federal investigators said that the initial raid should have been scrubbed after officials of the Treasury's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms learned that the Davidians had been tipped off that it was coming.

During the trial last winter, defense lawyers argued that the Treasury agents died when cult members merely sought to defend themselves against an unwarranted intrusion into their peace-loving, God-fearing community. The lawyers also portrayed Koresh as a charismatic leader whose insistence that the federal government was bent on destroying his cult was accepted blindly by many cult members.

Several attorneys who are appealing the convictions said that they also would appeal the sentences.

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