A state cannot prosecute a federal law enforcement agent who acted "honestly and reasonably" when shooting at a fleeing suspect, a sharply divided federal appeals court ruled Wednesday in a closely watched case stemming from the 1992 siege at Ruby Ridge, Idaho.
By a 2-1 vote, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that FBI sharpshooter Lon T. Horiuchi was entitled to immunity from criminal prosecution. Idaho authorities had sought to prosecute Horiuchi for a shot he fired that killed the wife of white separatist Randy Weaver and wounded Weaver's friend, Kevin Harris.
In his strongly worded dissent, Judge Alex Kozinski said that the court majority set a "007 standard for the use of deadly force" in a nine-state region covered by the court.
Horiuchi killed Vicki Weaver as she was holding the couple's baby girl, Elisheba. Federal agents had converged on the Weavers' remote mountain cabin to arrest her husband on a federal weapons trafficking charge and shots had been exchanged, resulting in the deaths of Weaver's son and a federal marshal.
In response, Horiuchi arrived later that day with a group of federal agents. He has consistently maintained that he did not see Vicki Weaver when he fired at Harris, who was armed and trying to flee into the Weavers' cabin.
After the Justice Department concluded in 1997 that there was insufficient evidence to file federal criminal charges against Horiuchi, Boundary County prosecutor Denise Woodbury charged him with involuntary manslaughter. She alleged in court papers that Horiuchi had been grossly negligent and "showed utter disregard for other human life."
The appellate court upheld a federal district judge's dismissal of charges against Horiuchi. But the clash between the appellate judges Wednesday is likely to add further fuel to the controversy precipitated by the FBI's actions at Ruby Ridge, an event that became a key symbol for anti-government activists, including the bomber of the Oklahoma City federal building, Timothy J. McVeigh.
A U.S. Senate subcommittee that reviewed the Ruby Ridge incident said in 1995 that it had "helped to weaken the bond of trust that must exist between ordinary Americans and our law enforcement agencies."
On the other hand, the Horiuchi case was considered sufficiently important by the federal government that the Justice Department filed a friend-of-the court brief in support of the position advocated by Horiuchi's private attorney: Federal officials are entitled to broad protection from state prosecution in the performance of their federal duties.
In addition, former FBI Director William H. Webster and four former U.S. attorneys general--Griffin P. Bell, Benjamin R. Civiletti, Richard L. Thornburgh and William P. Barr--filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting immunity from prosecution for Horiuchi.
Webster, now a private attorney in Washington, applauded the ruling, saying that if the case had gone the other way it would have been an untenable precedent--subjecting federal law enforcement agents to different standards of conduct in different states.
"The sniper's job in law enforcement requires split-second judgment that must depend exclusively on his/her federal training and policy," the brief for Webster and the former attorneys general stressed. "To subject the performance of that function to second-guessing in the context of a state criminal action is to severely undermine, if not cripple, the ability of future attorneys general to rely on such specialized units in moments of crisis such as hostage taking and terrorist acts."
The siege at Ruby Ridge began when U.S. marshals seeking to arrest Randy Weaver came upon Harris, Weaver and his 14-year-old son, Sammy, and their dog Striker at an intersection near the Weaver property. A marshal fired, killing the dog--prompting Sammy to return fire. Soon thereafter, another marshal shot and killed the teenager. In an ensuing gun battle, U.S. Marshal Michael Degan was shot and killed. Hours later, the team of FBI sharpshooters from the agency's Hostage and Rescue Team arrived.
That day, the federal law enforcement agents created special rules of engagement providing that "any armed adult male observed in the vicinity of the Weaver cabin could and should be killed." Generally, law enforcement agents may not shoot to kill unless the suspect poses an immediate threat or is fleeing and his escape will result in a serious threat.
The next day, Weaver, his daughter Sarah and Harris left the cabin and headed for a shed to prepare Sammy's body for burial. Soon thereafter, Horiuchi shot and wounded Weaver. When Weaver and the others ran back to the cabin, Horiuchi fired at Harris. But the bullet hit Vicki Weaver in the head--killing her instantly--passed through her and hit Harris in the upper arm and chest.