Murder trial beginning for Waco cult members

January 10, 1994|By New York Times News Service

SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- Ten and a half months after the apocalyptic ministry of David Koresh became known around the world with a deadly gun battle between his followers and federal agents, 11 surviving members of his sect were to go on trial today to face murder charges.

Although even prosecutors have suggested that there is much confusion about who actually fired the fatal shots -- and though three defendants were not present during the gun battle -- the 10 men and a woman are all accused of being part of a broad conspiracy to kill federal agents during a raid last Feb. 28 by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

The shootout near Waco precipitated a 51-day standoff between federal agents and Mr. Koresh's followers, the Branch Davidians. The standoff ended with a tear-gas assault on the group's compound, followed by a conflagration on the Texas prairie in which Mr. Koresh and more than 80 sect members died.

But while the trial in San Antonio may officially center on the defendants, all of whom indicated continued allegiance to Mr. Koresh and his teachings during pre-trial motions, the case will also inevitably amount to a trial of the government's actions and tactics.

Prosecutors are under pressure to demonstrate that the government was justified in sending more than 100 armed agents to carry out its raid on the Branch Davidians, a hitherto obscure and reclusive group.

In their indictments and pre-trial motions -- including a request that they be allowed to show the jury some 11 tons of guns, ammunition and grenades that they say the Branch Davidians stockpiled at their compound -- federal prosecutors have outlined arguments that the group had a clear and much-rehearsed plan to kill the agents who showed up that day.

The agents who carried out the raid had a warrant contending that many of the sect's weapons had been acquired or manufactured illegally.

But the 16 lawyers representing the defendants are expected to argue that the Branch Davidians' response to the raid was a classic case of self-defense by people fearing for their lives and their home.

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