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The BBC's Helen Wade
"A seven year battle"
 real 28k

Saturday, 15 July, 2000, 02:33 GMT 03:33 UK
Jury clears US over Waco deaths
Branch Davidian outside court
A Davidian holds a picture of children who died in fire
A Texas jury has ruled that the US Government was not to blame for the death of about 80 members of the Branch Davidian sect during the Waco stand-off with federal agents in 1993.

About 100 survivors and relatives of the dead had sued the government for $675m, alleging that agents had used excessive force to end the 51-day siege.

The stand-off ended in a fire on 19 April, 1993 at the cult's Mount Carmel compound, Texas, with at least 17 children among the dead.

Waco fire
Jury said the FBI was not to blame for the fire
Counsel for the plaintiffs had argued that federal agents were at least partly responsible for the deaths of the cult members.

But government lawyers said the blame lay squarely with the sect and its leader David Koresh, whom agents were trying to arrest on weapons charges. He was among the dead.

After deliberating for over two hours, the five-member jury found that agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) were not responsible for provoking the stand-off, and that FBI agents were not to blame for starting or contributing to the fatal fire.

'Tragedy'

The jury's decision is an advisory one only, and a federal judge will take the ruling into account before delivering a final verdict himself - probably some time next month.

Branch Davidians
Led by failed rock star who said he was Jesus Christ
Taught messianic gospel of sex, freedom and revolution
Prepared by leader for "fiery apocalypse"
After the jury's decision was announced, the Justice Department said: "This terrible tragedy was the responsibility of David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, not the federal government. We are pleased the jury affirmed that view."

Nonethless, plaintiffs' lawyer and former attorney-general Ramsey Clark said in impassioned closing arguments 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?" Mr Clark asked.

David Koresh
Cult leader David Koresh and about 80 others died in the fire
The BBC's Washington correspondent says the jury's finding is unlikely to silence America's many conspiracy theorists and anti-government activists who hold up the Waco siege and fire as a prime example of government interference in people's freedom.

The government blamed Branch Davidians for lighting the fires that consumed the compound and said firefighters could not approach because of the danger of Davidian gunfire and from exploding munitions stored on the grounds.

Jurors heard audio tapes made inside the compound, in which unidentified Branch Davidians were heard asking apparently incriminating questions such as "Start the fire?" and "Should we light the fire?"

Lengthy investigations

The siege sparked years of Congressional inquiries and criminal trials, as well as a probe started last year by a special investigator named by the US Justice Department.

The government argued that Koresh taught his followers he was an incarnation of God and trained them for an armed apocalyptic conflict.

But surviving Davidians testified that Mount Carmel was a peaceful Bible study centre.

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See also:

11 May 00 | Americas
Report clears FBI of Waco blame
20 Mar 00 | Americas
Waco re-enactment 'clears' FBI
18 Mar 00 | Africa
When devotion means death
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