Prosecutors face tough task as Waco trial opens: Account of cult's final days promises to be as bizarre as the legal case is complex

ONE defendant is seeking to have the word 'cult' banned entirely from proceedings. Another has spent her nine months in prison studying Hebrew and Greek so as to read the Bible in the original. Even in a courtroom, the story of the self- styled messiah David Koresh and his followers promises to be scarcely less bizarre than the real- life version which ended in fiery apocalypse last spring near Waco, on the prairies of central Texas.

Today the trial of 11 Branch Davidians opens in San Antonio, where it was moved after a judge ruled in October that intense publicity had made impossible a fair hearing in Waco itself. They face charges of murder and conspiracy to murder, as well as violations of firearms laws, all arising from the original raid on Koresh's Mount Carmel compound last February, in which four agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) were shot dead and 16 were wounded.

Of the defendants, seven are Americans, one is Australian, and three - Renos Avraam, Norman Allison and Livingston Fagan - are British. Ten are men, and one a woman. Some, like Mr Avraam, survived the final conflagration on 19 April in which Koresh and at least 84 of his devotees died after the FBI sent in battering rams and tear-gas for the final assault.

Others surrendered to the authorities during the 51-day siege, while one of them at least was even in the compound when the original botched assault by federal agents took place on 28 February. The trial will be enormously complex and last two months at least. If convicted, the accused face anything up to life imprisonment. Whether they will be, however, is far from certain.

The academic and legal specialists who have flocked to San Antonio are unanimous that state prosecutors face an uncommonly tricky task. To secure conviction on the looser conspiracy charges, they need only prove broad prior agreement among the Branch Davidians to use guns to repel any assault. But the jurors may be hard pressed indeed to assign individual guilt for the deaths of the four ATF agents.

Furthermore, the defence will argue that by bungling the raid, the government itself must take some responsibility for the first shoot- out, in which six Davidians also died. It has been established, for instance, that the Bureau decided to go ahead with the planned frontal attack even though they already knew that Koresh had learnt exactly when it would happen.

Then there is the equal if not larger controversy surrounding the final FBI onslaught which turned Mount Carmel into an inferno - whether by an accidental explosion or as a result of charges deliberately planted by Koresh. Technically events after 28 February are not at issue. But it seems likely they will intrude into the trial. Some experts believe the horror of 19 April could incline the jurors to leniency.

The greatest unseen presence in the courtroom, however, will be Koresh himself, the self-proclaimed 'Lamb of God'. In the eyes of his followers, his predictions of apocalypse were fulfilled by the siege and its demoniacal ending.

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