FBI sharpshooter can be tried in Ruby Ridge slaying, court says
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that an FBI sharpshooter can be tried by Idaho prosecutors for manslaughter in the slaying of white separatist Randy Weaver’s wife during the 1992 Ruby Ridge standoff.
The ruling from a sharply divided 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals revives a case mentioned in the same breath as Waco and cited by Timothy McVeigh as motivation for the Oklahoma City bombing.
It could also mean that FBI officials will be hauled into court to defend decisions made during the 11-day confrontation in northern Idaho. The agency is already stinging from recent gaffes in the bombing case and the recent indictment of agent Robert Hanssen on espionage charges.
The Ruby Ridge case is seen as a test of whether federal agents are immune from state prosecution. The federal government declined to prosecute agent Lon Horiuchi, but Tuesday’s ruling clears the way for Idaho prosecutors to pursue charges against him in the death of Vicki Weaver, 42.
”When federal officers violate the Constitution, either through malice or excessive zeal, they can be held accountable for violating the state’s criminal laws,” Judge Alex Kozinski wrote in the 6-5 decision.
The court agreed with Idaho’s contention that immunity cannot be granted until there is a hearing to determine whether Horiuchi acted unlawfully. If a judge rules Horiuchi broke the law, the case can go before a jury, the court ruled.
The panel rejected arguments that it didn’t matter whether Weaver’s death was the result of excessive force.
”When federal law enforcement agents carry out their responsibilities, they can cause destruction of property, loss of freedom, and as in this case, loss of life – all which might violate the state’s criminal laws,” Kozinski said.
Horiuchi’s attorney, Adam Hoffinger, declined comment and a Justice Department spokesman wouldn’t say whether the decision will be appealed.
Outgoing FBI Director Louis J. Freeh said he was disappointed with the ruling and said the agency stands behind Horiuchi.
”As so often happens in law enforcement, split-second life and death decisions must be made by those sworn to enforce the law,” Freeh said. ”We continue to believe strongly agent Horiuchi met the legal standard that protects law enforcement officers when they carry out their duties, even when the consequence in hindsight is regrettable.”
Ramsey Clark, a former U.S. attorney general under President Johnson who argued the case for Boundary County, Idaho, called the ruling ”courageous” and said it showed that law enforcement would be held accountable for violence.
Randy Weaver also praised the decision.
”We’ve said all along that federal agents should be held accountable for their actions just like the rest of us,” Weaver said from his home in Jefferson, Iowa. ”If the state can’t bring charges, who will hold them responsible?
”We’re happy with the decision,” he said. ”The American people should be happy with the decision. It’s a good day for America and the justice system.”
Stephen Yagman, who also represented Idaho in the case, said the decision was a significant victory for individual and states’ rights.
”It puts another nail in the open coffin … of the FBI,” he said.
The standoff prompted a nationwide debate on the use of force by federal agencies.
It began after federal agents tried to arrest Randy Weaver for failing to appear in court to face charges of selling two illegal sawed-off shotguns. His cabin had been under surveillance for several months.
The violence began with the deaths of Deputy U.S. Marshal William Degan, Weaver’s 14-year-old son, Samuel, and the Weaver family dog, Striker.
Horiuchi later shot and killed Weaver’s wife and wounded family friend Kevin Harris. Witnesses said the sharpshooter fired as Vicki Weaver held open the cabin door, her 10-month-old baby in her arms, to let her husband, their daughter and Harris inside.
Horiuchi has said he didn’t see Vicki Weaver when he fired at Harris, who was armed and was ducking inside the cabin. He also said he fired to protect a government helicopter overhead.
The appeals court appeared troubled with the case. Those in dissent said the majority was using hindsight in ”dissecting the mistakes” of Horiuchi.
They called the majority’s opinion a ”grave disservice” to FBI agents and argued that Horiuchi, who is still an FBI agent, should be immune from prosecution.
”Every day in this country, federal agents place their lives in the line of fire to secure the liberties that we all hold dear,” Judge Michael Daly Hawkins wrote for the minority. ”There will be times when those agents make mistakes, sudden judgment calls that turn out to be horribly wrong.
”We seriously delude ourselves if we think we can serve the cause of liberty by throwing shackles on those agents and hauling them to the dock of a state criminal court when they make such mistakes.”
The standoff ended after Harris and Weaver surrendered. Both men were acquitted of murder, conspiracy and other federal charges. Weaver was convicted of failing to appear for trial on the firearms charge.
In 1995, the government paid Weaver and his three surviving children $3.1 million for the killings of Weaver’s wife and son.
The Justice Department last summer settled the last civil lawsuit stemming from the standoff. The government admitted no wrongdoing, but paid Harris $380,000 to drop his $10 million civil damage suit.
On the Net:
Court case, Idaho vs. Horiuchi, 98-30149: http://www.ca9.uscourts.gov
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