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JUSTICE PERVERTED IN DAVIDIAN SENTENCES

On June 17, Federal District Court Judge Walter Smith sentenced six of the eight Branch Davidians convicted of aiding and abetting manslaughter, and weapons violations to maximum terms ranging from 40 to 15 years. The remaining two received 20 and 5 years respectively for their part in the February 28, 1993 gun battle with federal agents. The eight will get credit for the 14 months already served.

Jury foreman Sarah Bain was rightfully horrified by the harshness of the sentences. She had earlier sent Judge Smith a letter on behalf of herself and several other jurors encouraging him to be lenient since it was the jury's intent to administer "a slap on the wrist." Judge Smith ignored the plea and instead accused five of the defendants of having "willingly participated in a conspiracy to murder government agents." He justified the maximum sentences he imposed by claiming that rigid federal guidelines tied his hands, the defendants showed no remorse, and they had fired the first shots.

It is understandable that the convicted Davidians showed no remorse. They were found not guilty of the most serious charge conspiracy to commit murder. They steadfastly and unanimously maintain their innocence on all charges insisting that they had defended themselves against an unprovoked assault. Apparently, Judge Smith expected them to admit to something they didn't do to appease his sense of outrage at the jury's verdict. He obviously doesn't know the difference between criminals and those who resist the abuse of their rights. The judge himself had originally set aside the convictions on the firearms violation since the defendants could not logically be guilty of using a weapon in a commission of a crime for which they had been acquitted. Sarah Bain admitted that the jurors had not understood the judge's instructions for that charge. The judge, however, reversed himself under pressure from prosecutors and allowed the inconsistent verdict to stand.

Despite the fact that it has never been determined who fired the first shot, Judge Smith decided it was the Davidians. The evidence, to include the testimony of a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Forearms (BATF) agent at the scene, points to the most likely culprits being a team of BATF agents assigned to silence the Davidian's dogs just outside the main building. This is standard procedure in this type of an operation.

Although federal guidelines are complicated and rigid, Judge Smith did not use what little discretion he had in sentencing the Davidians. He made up his mind that they were guilty of conspiracy to murder federal agents in defiance of the jury's verdict. In doing so, he subverted the jury's intent.

Chief Prosecutor Ray Jahn labeled the convicted Davidians as "no different from any religious terrorists, such as those that bombed the World Trade Center, the Marine Corps barracks in Lebanon, and Pan Am Flight 103." His portrayal is without merit and irresponsible. Terrorists attack innocent people without provocation for political ends. The Branch Davidians defended themselves against an unprovoked attack by federal agents. They threatened no one. They were on their own property, in their own homes, at their own church at the time of the attack. They didn't go out seeking trouble. There is no evidence that they planned to harm anyone within or without their community. They had no political agenda. The prosecutor's claim is akin to calling the defenders of the Alamo terrorists.

In arguing for maximum sentences, the prosecution presumed that the Davidians at Mt. Carmel possessed and used automatic weapons. Yet, the jury never ruled on that issue. News footage of the shootout show no automatic weapon's fire coming from the Davidian complex. As far as we know, the only automatic weapons were in the hands of federal agents.

There are lessons to be learned from the Davidian trial. Jurors must be fully informed of their powers as the Fully Informed Jury Association (FIJA) has repeatedly stated. Judge Smith did everything in his power to keep them ignorant of the full range of their authority. FIJA managed to get a packet of information to most of the jurors which was purposely not case specific to avoid prejudicing them. Most of them turned it over to the judge unread. If the jurors had known the extent of the punishment, that federal prisoners must serve at least 85% of their sentence, and that the judge's discretion is very limited, they would most likely have voted to acquit the defendants on all counts. In addition, jurors should not trust the government to discern the intention behind their verdicts, or to honor it if they do.


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