WASHINGTON (AP) - The special counsel investigating the possibility of an official cover-up after the 1993 Branch Davidian siege has asked a Texas judge to delay lawyers' fact-finding in the civil lawsuit filed against the government by Davidian survivors and relatives of the dead.
Former Sen. John Danforth asked a federal judge in Waco to issue an order delaying for 30 days any discovery and witness interviews by government and plaintiffs' lawyers in the upcoming trial. He also requested permission to interview all witnesses first.
"It is my firm belief that our inquiry will benefit by interviewing witnesses prior to their preparation for testimony in a civil trial," Danforth wrote Thursday to U.S. District Judge Walter Smith. "Because a civil trial inherently involves advocacy, testimony tends to be very well-rehearsed and coordinated with the testimony of other witnesses."
Surviving Davidians and the relatives of the dead are challenging the government's conclusion that the fire that swept through the Davidians' compound on April 19, 1993 was set by cult members. Leader David Koresh and some 80 followers died during the inferno, some from the fire, others from gunshot wounds.
Danforth is investigating whether the government covered up its use of potentially incendiary tear gas grenades that day and whether federal agents fired any shots in the final hours, among other issues.
Smith did not rule Friday on Danforth's request, which is not without precedent.
In the Monica Lewinsky investigation last year, Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr asked the judge in the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit against President Clinton to halt any evidence-gathering in the civil case that related to the Lewinsky matter. Starr contended that lawyers in the Jones case were interfering with his criminal investigation by pursuing the same witnesses and evidence.
Danforth, appointed last week by Attorney General Janet Reno to head an independent investigation into the newly revived Waco controversy, said he needs until mid-October to get his inquiry up and running.
"We are moving very rapidly," Danforth wrote. "We do not envision, however, that we will be able to conduct detailed interviews of critical witnesses until mid-October. That is why we have requested the 30-day stay."
One of the two main plaintiffs' attorneys in the case voluntarily agreed Friday to postpone for two weeks the depositions of Reno, an FBI sharpshooter and a key FBI on-scene commander, which had been scheduled for later this month.
"I didn't think it was too much to ask to give them two more weeks to sort of get organized," said Houston lawyer Michael Caddell. But he objected to a 30-day delay, saying, "I cannot halt all discovery for 30 days and not impair my ability and still get ready for trial by January." He wrote to the judge Friday that discovery should continue and lawyers should be allowed to continue making copies of government evidence such as videotapes.
But a lawyer for other plaintiffs in the case, Jim Brannon of Houston, rejected the notion of voluntarily delaying his depositions, saying he would forge ahead unless told otherwise by the judge. Brannon said he intends to be in Washington beginning Monday to interview "dozens and dozens" of federal officials who were on the scene during the 51-day siege.
"Do I object to the 30 days? Not if the court orders it, I don't. But only if a court orders it," Brannon said Friday. "I'm not going to volunteer it, like Mr. Caddell seems to do."
Smith this week vacated the Oct. 18 trial date, saying the government needs more time to produce the voluminous amount of siege-related documents and evidence he recently demanded turned over to his court. The judge did not set a new date, but Caddell said he is operating under the assumption it will be in January or later.
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