WACO, Texas - An advisory jury decided Friday that the government does not bear responsibility for the deaths of 80 Branch Davidians during the cult's 1993 standoff with federal agents. A federal judge will deliver the final verdict.
The five jurors deliberated for 2 hours in the $675 million wrongful-death lawsuit filed by surviving Branch Davidians and relatives of those who were killed. The trial, which lasted nearly a month, brought out emotional testimony recounting the standoff from both sides.
U.S. District Judge Walter Smith, who will take the jury's findings under advisement, said he would render his verdict soon, possibly in August. He will also consider perhaps the most contentious issue - whether federal agents shot at the Davidians at the end of the siege.
The plaintiffs contended that the government should shoulder some blame for the botched raid that started the 51-day standoff and the final day of the siege, when the cult's compound went up in flames.
But the jury found that the government did not use excessive force during the raid and was not negligent by driving tanks into the compound on the final day. The jurors also had been asked whether agents contributed to or spread the fires or violated a directive to have firefighting equipment at the site, which was known as Mount Carmel.
''I think a vast majority of the American public will take this as the final word,'' said Michael Caddell, lead counsel for the plaintiffs. ''For most people that will be the finish to Mount Carmel.''
The government contended that federal agents were ambushed by heavily armed Davidians in the raid and that suicidal members of the group set the fires themselves on the final day.
To bolster their defense, government attorneys played audio tapes made inside the compound in which unidentified Branch Davidians were heard asking ''Start the fire?'' and ''Should we light the fire?''
At one point, a male voice could be heard saying, ''Let's keep that fire going,'' as tanks rumbled in the background.
''This terrible tragedy was the responsibility of David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, not the federal government,'' the Justice Department said in a statement after the decision was announced. ''We are pleased the jury affirmed that view.''
Plaintiffs' lawyer Ramsey Clark, who was attorney general during Lyndon Johnson's administration, said in closing arguments Friday that the deaths of the cult members ''didn't have to happen'' and called the siege ''the greatest domestic law enforcement tragedy in the history of the United States.''
''If the conduct of the ATF and the FBI was performed without excessive force and without negligence, then how in the world did it end up with such unmitigated, disastrous effects?'' Clark said.
The siege began on Feb. 28, 1993, when Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents tried to search the complex and arrest Koresh, the cult's leader, on illegal weapons charges. Six Davidians and four ATF agents were killed in the ensuing shootout.
The standoff ended 51 days later with the deaths of some 80 men, women and children inside the compound from either gunshots or from the flames that quickly engulfed the building hours into a tear-gassing operation designed to end the siege.
Caddell cited government documents that he said proves agents deviated from their planned tear-gassing operation and put innocent people inside the compound.
Memories of the inferno at the end of the siege have made Waco a one-word rallying cry for critics of the government, who have claimed the government covered up aspects of its role.
Last year, the FBI recanted earlier denials and acknowledged that federal agents fired one or more incendiary tear gas rounds during the standoff; a documentary researcher had found potentially incendiary devices among the evidence stored in Texas.
A month later, Attorney General Janet Reno appointed former Missouri Sen. John Danforth as special counsel to resolve unanswered questions about the siege.
A spokeswoman for Danforth, Jan Diltz, would not comment on Friday's decision, nor would she speculate on when Danforth might conclude his probe.
FBI Director Louis Freeh said the jury's conclusion lifted ''an enormous burden'' from law enforcement officers involved with the siege.
''There has been a lot of speculation, misinformation and second-guessing over the past seven years,'' Freeh said in a statement, ''and I am grateful that this trial and other actions by the court allowed the allegations to be aired and the facts to be proved.''
Clive Doyle, who was one of nine people who escaped the inferno and is one of the plaintiffs in the wrongful-death case, maintained that the government's version of what happened in 1993 in untrue.
''I would've been surprised if the jury ruled in favor of us,'' he said. ''It's kind of like the Kennedy assassination. You have the official version and you have what everybody else believes.''