The Waco Massacre: Closer To Justice

In 1999, long-suppressed evidence for the U.S. federal government's guilt in the Waco massacre finally came to light, and in 2000, the Davidians' prison sentences were shortened.

F.B.I. Admits Using Inflammable Gas

On January, 25, 2000, the Associated Press reported that the chief prosecutor of the Waco case believed the goverment was wrong:

Assistant U.S. Attorney Bill Johnston, whose willingness to re-examine evidence from the deadly standoff touched off a re-investigation of the government's actions, handed in his resignation to his boss, U.S. Attorney James Blagg in San Antonio.

Johnston, 40, acknowledged mounting frustration with Justice officials, whom he called "less than forthright."

. . . Johnston, the chief federal prosecutor in Waco, has been at odds with Justice officials since he paved the way last year for independent filmmakers to review evidence sifted from the charred ruins of the Davidians' compound.

Filmmaker Michael McNulty's discovery of a spent pyrotechnic tear gas canister forced the FBI to recant its longstanding denials that potentially incendiary devices were fired on April 19, 1993, when Branch Davidian leader David Koresh and about 80 followers died in a fire at their compound.

The FBI's about-face has triggered investigations by Congress and a special counsel appointed by Reno.

Johnston's tension with his superiors was heightened in August, when he wrote Reno that government lawyers had known for years about the use of pyrotechnic tear-gas canisters, which were fired hours before the Davidians' compound erupted in flames.

Ten days after he wrote the letter, Johnston was abruptly pulled from the case, as was Blagg's entire office.

"I wasn't going to be a party to misleading the American public about this issue, when I full well knew the import of it," Johnston told CBS' "60 Minutes II" in an interview airing Tuesday night.

"We cannot hide the ball, in criminal or civil cases, and feel good about it."

When the FBI's use of the gas canisters came to light, Attorney General Janet Reno named John Danforth a special counsel to investigate. Danforth's July 2000 report concluded that the FBI's gas was not cause of the deadly fire. However, Danforth indicted Johnston for withholding notes showing that he was told in 1993 that the FBI fired incendiary military tear gas grenades.

On June 7, 2001, Johnston pled guilty to obstructing the investigation and was sentenced to two years' probation. Johnston maintained he was prosecuted -- the only person prosecuted by Danforth -- in retaliation for his going public about the gas use.

Davidian Sentences Reduced

On June 5, 2000, seven years after the Waco incident, the U.S. Supreme Court set aside the lengthy prison sentences given to five Branch Davidians.

Federal law mandates longer sentences for the use of a firearm during certain types of crimes, and even longer sentences for use of a "machine gun." In the Waco case, the Supreme Court ruled that the the determination of what type of firearm had been used must be made by the jury and not simply by the judge during the sentencing phase.

In September 2000, the Davidians were resentenced to lower terms. Six of the imprisoned Davidians were released in spring 2006, and one in spring 2007.