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FBI Agent Is Granted Trial in U.S. Court

Law enforcement: Sharpshooter accused of involuntary manslaughter in Ruby Ridge siege wins bid to take case out of Idaho state court.

January 13, 1998|KIM MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BOISE, Idaho — FBI sharpshooter Lon Horiuchi pleaded not guilty Monday to a charge of involuntary manslaughter after winning his bid to be tried in federal court on charges that he illegally fired the shot that killed Vicki Weaver in the 1992 siege at Ruby Ridge.

Horiuchi, the first member of the FBI's elite Hostage Rescue Team to face criminal charges in connection with a bureau operation, had sought to move the case out of state court in rural northern Idaho in order to assert claims that he was acting within the scope of his duties as a federal law enforcement officer.

U.S. District Judge Edward J. Lodge granted the removal after a brief evidentiary hearing, concluding there was a "probable connection" between Horiuchi's job and the shot he fired that killed Vicki Weaver, wife of white separatist Randy Weaver, as she stood holding her infant daughter near the doorway of the family's remote mountaintop cabin.

"Whether or not Mr. Horiuchi will prevail on that defense is not before the court, and the question of whether the defendant's actions were reasonable and necessary is a factual and not a legal issue," the judge said.

A state court judge in Idaho last week ruled that there was sufficient evidence to hold the FBI agent for trial on a charge of involuntary manslaughter, a statute that requires the state to prove he was careless or negligent when he fired the shot that he says was intended for Kevin Harris, an armed friend of the Weaver family who was also holed up in the cabin.

But lawyers retained by the U.S. Justice Department on Horiuchi's behalf successfully argued that federal law enforcement officers are entitled to have any such prosecutions heard in federal court, where Horiuchi would be able to assert a claim of immunity because he was acting within the scope of his official duties.

The transfer also has the effect of sending the trial hundreds of miles away from the scene of the 11-day standoff, a key incident in the rise of the American militia movement that still carries strong sentiments in rural Boundary County. The judge postponed ruling on whether a federal jury would be drawn from northern Idaho or from Boise, the state capital in the south.

State prosecutors have argued that Horiuchi is not entitled to claim immunity because a federal appeals court, ruling in a civil case Harris filed against the FBI agents, already has determined that they are not entitled to immunity.

The basis of the appeals court's decision was a set of special rules of engagement adopted for the Ruby Ridge siege, which called for Hostage Rescue Team snipers to shoot any armed male. The appeals court said those rules were "plainly inconsistent" with prevailing restrictions on the use of deadly force.

"It could not be subjectively reasonable for any human being to fire though a door without knowing what is behind the door," Los Angeles civil rights lawyer Stephen Yagman, acting as a special prosecutor in the case, said after the hearing Monday.

But Judge Lodge was persuaded in part by Horiuchi's lawyers' assertion that a recent decision by the appeals court to withdraw its opinion pending a rehearing or appeal leaves the issue of immunity unresolved.

Attorney Patricia L. Maher also argued that a criminal case invokes different standards for immunity than those applied in a civil case, and requires a judge or jury to consider whether the officer believed his conduct was necessary, even if he was mistaken or his judgment was poor, as well as to make a determination of whether the officer's conduct was reasonable under the circumstances.

Finally, she said, the appeals court's initial finding on immunity stemmed solely from an examination of facts alleged in Harris' lawsuit, which may or may not be proved at trial.

Horiuchi entered his not guilty plea before U.S. Magistrate Mikel Williams, who scheduled a tentative trial date of March 10. Horiuchi's lawyers said they will move to dismiss the case before then.

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