FBI humiliated by Waco verdict

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THE ACQUITTAL on Saturday on murder and conspiracy charges of followers of the dead Waco cult leader David Koresh is a humiliating setback for the Justice Department and US crime-fighting agencies. It may lead them to use force with far more caution in comparable cases in the future.

Seven weeks ago, when the Branch Davidian trial began in San Antonio, Texas, the prosecution baldly promised to 'put a gun in the hand' of each of the 11 defendants. But every one of them was cleared of the most serious charges stemming from the raid, in February last year, on the Mount Carmel compound in which four government agents were killed.

The state's meagre consolation was five convictions on the lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter, carrying a maximum sentence of 10 years' imprisonment, and two more on minor counts of illegal weapons possession. The four remaining defendants, among them the Jamaican-born Briton Norman Allison, will go free. Mr Allison is expected to face deportation proceedings.

With Saturday's verdict, the curtain has come down on the deadliest and most disastrous failure of law enforcement in recent US history - one that began with the assault of 28 February, when four agents of the Bureau for Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) were shot dead and 16 wounded. It ended in the inferno seven weeks later that took the lives of Koresh and at least 80 of his followers.

From the outset, the government maintained that Koresh and his followers had plotted an ambush of the ATF force of 75. But the verdict upholds the defence contention that those inside had acted in self-defence, indeed that the first shots may have been fired by ATF agents themselves.

The crucial evidence was the emergency call from the compound on that Sunday morning a year ago, three minutes after the shoot-out began. 'They're shooting at women and children in here,' jurors heard Koresh's lawyer and follower Wayne Martin pleading over and over again to a Waco police officer, 'tell them to call it off'.

After a procession of 125 prosecution witnesses that lasted six weeks, the defence rested its case after only two days, taking the considerable gamble of having none of the accused testify on their own behalf. The tape of the call was virtually the only piece of evidence presented by the defence. But the strategy worked.

Among the five convicted of voluntary manslaughter were the two other British defendants, Renos Avraam, 29, and Livingston Fagan, 34, recruited by Koresh during a visit to Britain six years ago.

The final sentences will not be passed for up to six weeks but, for the government, it is already a task of putting the best face on a defeat. 'The verdicts show the deaths were unjustified. I never looked at this in terms of vindication,' said the Attorney General, Janet Reno, who gave the order for the FBI to launch the attack last April with tear gas and battering rams.

Defence lawyers were jubilant: 'You don't negotiate with tanks and tear gas,' Dan Cogdell declared. 'You don't assault people when there are people inside who don't need assaulting, and you don't bring a case you can't prove.'

That may be the lasting consequence of the Waco fiasco - from the government's point of view, a saga of mistakes and miscalculations that cost the ATF's former director his job and produced a withering report from the Treasury Department.