Case Summary

Mountcarmelfire04-19-93-pThe Branch Davidian religious sect split in 1955 from the Davidian Seventh-day Adventists, a reform movement that arose from within the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the 1930s. Due to an end-time prophesy from their founder, Branch Davidians established the Mount Carmel Center on a hilltop east of Waco, Texas as their main gathering place as they waited for the beginning of Armageddon.

After a succession of leaders, a man named Vernon Howell became leader of the group in 1989, paid off the back taxes on the Mount Carmel Center, and became legal owner of the property. Howell went on to release a controversial audio tape revealing his “New Light” plan to prepare for the End Times, which included establishing a “House of David” procreated by him from relations with the women within the Branch Davidians and creating an “Army For God”. In 1990 Howell legally changed his name to David Koresh to be in line with his “New Light” plan.

Journalists Mark England and Darlene McCormick investigated David Koresh and the Branch Davidian group during the early 1990s. The Waco Tribune-Herald planned to publish these investigative articles as “The Sinful Messiah” series, detailing Koresh’s behavior toward the children and women at the Mount Carmel Center and alleging that Koresh and other Branch Davidian members were stockpiling illegal weapons. At the request of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF), the newspaper withheld publication of these articles for several weeks.

Concurrently, the Branch Davidians had been under investigation by local authorities and the BATF for illegal firearms possession. Authorities worked to uncover evidence of illegal firearm purchases, which they failed to do. A search warrant request by BATF agent David Aguilera was based on a claim that there were 150 firearms at the Mount Carmel Center that could be modified into illegal firearms. The search warrant was granted, as were arrest warrants for Koresh and other key Branch Davidian members.

The Waco Tribune-Herald published the first article in “The Sinful Messiah” series on 27 February 1993. Despite their opportunities to peacefully arrest David Koresh on one of his many ventures away from Mount Carmel and the rest of the group, BATF agents attempted to execute their search warrant by way of a raid at the Mount Carmel Center, known to be the residence of many children, the following day. The Branch Davidians were tipped off about the raid, a fact confirmed by the BATF agent who had infiltrated the Branch Davidian group, and yet the ATF agents commenced with the raid even though the framework for it was based on the element of surprise. During the attempted raid, four BATF agents and five Branch Davidian members were killed. Later that same day a sixth Branch Davidian member was killed by BATF agents as he tried to enter the compound.

This botched raid kicked off a siege led by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), who took over operations due to the BATF agent deaths. FBI leaders included Hostage Rescue Team Commander Richard Rogers, who was part of the team at Ruby Ridge and had been criticized for his role in the escalation of that particular incident. The siege lasted 51 days. Communications between the Branch Davidians and those outside the compound were eventually cut off, leaving only FBI negotiators in contact with the group.

FBI agents were divided on how to handle the operation. There was a faction who thought negotiation was the answer while the other faction advocated the use of force. The FBI employed aggressive techniques like sleep deprivation and patrolling with armored vehicles. Eventually the FBI recommended an outright assault, voicing concern about the children still living at the Mount Carmel Center and potential for mass suicides by Branch Davidian membership, to which U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and President Bill Clinton agreed.

On 19 April 1993, the FBI launched their assault on the Mount Carmel Center. They planned to use tear gas to pressure the remaining members of the Davidian group to leave the compound. At 5:59 am, agents informed those remaining at Mount Carmel that they were about to commence the tear gas assault and ordering them to come out. Just three minutes later, however, the FBI was already inserting gas into the Center by way of boom-mounted spray nozzles. Tear gas was used for six hours by the FBI with no members of the group exiting. Around noon, the fires broke out in different parts of the building where Branch Davidian members where congregating. Altogether, nearly 80 group members perished, including nearly two dozen children as young as one year old. Only eleven would escape the carnage of these operations.

Following the deadly assault, 11 Branch Davidians were tried for various charges, the most serious of which were murder and conspiracy to commit murder. FIJA’s juror educators rose to the occasion and did their best to ensure access to fully informed jurors. They began by leafletting at the local county courthouse to establish a presence in the community.

When Judge Walter Smith made the jury in this case anonymous, activists tried on numerous occasions to get access to the master jury wheel for the federal court, which the judge later reportedly claimed was public record, in order to send an educational mailing. FIJA co-founder Larry Dodge reported that upon acquiring the two court orders from the judge anonymizing the jury, the reason the judge cited for doing so was not to shield the jury from intimidation, but rather specifically to prevent them from receiving materials from “a group” (not named in the orders) from supplying jurors with materials educating them on their full authority to vote their consciences.

As their efforts to gain access to the master jury wheel were undermined by the court, FIJA activists adorned a vehicle with a public address system and a FIJA banner, found a choice parking spot for it at 6:30 am, and proceeded to address the area until they were shut down by local police. This outreach effort drew the attention of the media, providing many opportunities for soundbites and views of FIJA’s toll-free number on the banner as well as reaching jurors when they lined up to get on the buses used to transport them.

Upon final denial of their efforts to access the master jury wheel, FIJA activists canvassed the area to record license plate numbers, purchased publicly available contact information for their owners at $2 per plate, and sent out Jury Power Information Kits to all of them. It was later learned the the judge in the case was infuriated by this educational effort and demanded jurors turn over the materials. He reportedly collected five packets. Local FIJA activists then followed up with a postcard mailing and, after the trial, with a thank you letter for the jurors’ and alternates’ service.

Jurors unanimously acquitted all eleven of the charges of murder and conspiracy to commit murder. The jury decided to acquit three of the Davidian members of all charges against them, while five were convicted of voluntary manslaughter and three were convicted on weapons charges.

Sentences imposed by Judge Smith ranged from 5—40 years in prison, with accompanying fines and restitution. These sentences were much harsher than the recommended sentences for the crimes the jury convicted the defendants on. The Bangor Daily News reported after the trial that the judge had based the sentences in part on evidence that he had specifically withheld from the jury, supposedly because he considered it too grisly for them to handle if they saw it.

After the trial and sentencing, jury foreman Sarah Bain wept as she told the press that convictions on the weapons counts were delivered by mistake:

“I feel directly responsible,” a crying Bain said after the sentencing. “If we had done that (weapons) count properly, the maximum sentence for anyone in there would be ten years. … I just regret that part.”

Bain wrote a letter to the US Senate Judiciary Committee about the sentencing by Judge Smith, which he also based in part on the use of “enhanced firearms” for the crime of “using or carrying a firearm as part of a ‘conspiracy’”. The jury acquitted on all conspiracy charges; they did not believe any of the 11 on trial committed conspiracy to murder of federal agents. And yet, Judge Smith used those acquitted charges and the term “enhanced firearms”—a fact the jury was never asked to consider—as the basis of his sentencing, in direct opposition of the jury’s findings.

“Since the trial, I have been told about many other disturbing matters that should
have been presented to the jury. Not only do these matters deserve detailed
investigation independent of the BATF’s Treasury Department and the FBI’s Justice
Department; but why these matters were concealed from a jury who took an
oath to base the verdicts only on the testimony heard in court is a paramount matter.

I implore you not only to seek answers to the many questions raised,
but also to provide redress as warranted.”
—Sarah Bain, juror #16 and jury foreman, Branch Davidian Trial

Due to the harsh sentences imposed by Judge Smith, using purported defendant actions in contradiction to the jury findings and terms the jury did not deliberate on, the case was appealed with Castillo v. United States ultimately making its way to the US Supreme court in 1999. The basis of the petition was the use of the term “enhanced firearm” by Judge Smith during his sentencing.

On 5 June 200, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the terms used to establish what firearms were used in a crime did matter, and that this was within the authority of juries and not judges to establish:

In this case we once again decide whether words in a federal criminal statute create offense elements (determined by a jury) or sentencing factors (determined by a judge). … The statute in question, 18 U. S. C. § 924(c) (1988 ed., Supp. V), prohibits the use or carrying of a “firearm” in relation to a crime of violence, and increases the penalty dramatically when the weapon used or carried is, for example, a “machinegun.” We conclude that the statute uses the word “machinegun” (and similar words) to state an element of a separate offense.

The ruling cited the conflict that could arise between the jury’s intention in their findings, based on what weapon they believe was used by the defendant, and the amount of prison time a judge could sentence, which can vary based on what type of weapon is believed used in a crime. With this ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court protected and supported the fact-finding authority of the jury.

Case Documents

Castillo et al. v. United States (99-658) 530 U.S. 120 (2000), decided 5 June 2000
Castillo et al. v. United States oral argument, audio version and written transcript
Brief for the United States in Opposition to Petition for a Writ of Certiorari in the Supreme Court case of Castillo et al. v. United States, December 1999, docket number 99-658
Memo to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, Re: A Juror’s View of the Events of Mt. Carmel and the Trial of Eleven Branch Davidians, Sarah L. Bain, Jury Foreman and Juror #16, Branch Davidian Trial
United States v. Brad Eugene Branch, Kevin Whitecliff, Jaime Castillo, Renos Lenny Avraam, Paul Fatta and Graeme Leonard Craddock, United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit, No. 94-50437, decided 2 August 1996

FIJA Documents

3 Examples of Jurors Regretting Guilty Verdicts
The Branch Davidians’ Trial: Was the Jury Fully Informed?, The FIJActivist, Spring 1994

Other Resources

An Anniversary That We Must Never Forget
Waco: The Rules of Engagement

Research and Writing Credit: Lisa Lewis, Kirsten C. Tynan
Photo Credit: By Federal Bureau of Investigation [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons