Grim tales of child, agents deaths open Branch Davidians trial

WACO, Texas - The $675 million wrongful death case against the government over the 1993 disaster at Waco opened Tuesday with a lawyer showing pictures of the child victims, reciting their names and intoning: ''Never fired a gun. Never broke the law. Never hurt anyone.''

Michael Caddell, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, made the presentation to the jury that will consider whether the government used excessive force in the raid on the Branch Davidian compound.

About 80 members of the cult - including at least 20 children under 16 and Davidian leader David Koresh - were killed, some in the blaze that destroyed their compound, others from gunfire. The government contends that cult members started the fire and that no federal agents fired guns.

Caddell decried the deaths of the children, showing video of some of them while they lived at the compound.

''This case is about truth and responsibility,'' Caddell said in his opening statement. ''The truth about what happened at Mount Carmel and the responsibility for what happened.''

Four federal law officers and six Davidians were killed when agents tried to serve a search warrant on the compound at Mount Carmel, outside Waco, on Feb. 28, 1993, because of suspected gun violations. That began a 51-day siege at the compound that when after the FBI tear-gassed the wooden complex and the place went up in flames.

The judge excluded the testimony from three FBI negotiators who said tanks should not have been used to end the siege.

The judge agreed with government lawyers who say the negotiators' testimony and communications fell under a privilege that shields the federal government from liability even if its agents' actions prove negligent. It is designed to give federal officials the ability to act without the fear of being sued.

This lawsuit consolidates nine civil cases filed by survivors and relatives of the victims. The trial, expected to last about a month, will deal with four issues:

- Whether Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents used excessive force in the initial raid.

- Whether government agents helped caused the fires that destroyed the compound.

- Whether the government was negligent by withholding firefighting equipment.

- And whether using tanks to push into the compound deviated from a plan approved by Attorney General Janet Reno.

U.S. Attorney Mike Bradford, defending the government, told the six-person jury that ATF agents attempting to deliver the search warrants ended up targets of gunfire. Five Davidians were convicted in 1994 of voluntary manslaughter in the agents' deaths.

''They were pinned down in a gunfight for their lives,'' Bradford said during opening statements.

He also said FBI and ATF agents were not to blame for the deaths in the raid and siege, insisting that the fire was set inside the compound.

''One thing is clear - the Branch Davidians did set the fire that did burn the compound to the ground,'' he said.

The jury will act only as an advisory panel to the judge, who will deliver the verdict. Separately, the judge will take up the question of whether federal agents shot at members of the sect during the fiery end of the siege.

The first witness to testify Tuesday was Rita Riddle, who was in the compound during the initial raid but left before the ensuing siege. She said she was unaware of any plans by sect members to ambush federal agents as they tried to serve the search warrants. She said she knew there were guns in the building, however.

Another witness, Jaunessa Wendel, who was 8 at the time of the raid, testified that her mother, Jaydean, was fixing her hair in their room when gunfire shattered the window, spraying glass into her brothers' crib. Jaydean Wendel was killed.

''I know that I was very scared at that time. I didn't know what he (the Ranger) wanted from me. I tried to give him what he wanted from me,'' Jaunessa Wendel testified.

Another child living at the compound during the siege recalled how her bedroom was riddled with bullet holes after the initial raid.

''It was completely destroyed ... all my quilt coverings were full of holes. If I had been sleeping, I would not be here today,'' said Natalie Nobrega, now 18.


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