A federal appeals court ruled today that an FBI sharpshooter can be tried for manslaughter in the slaying of white separatist Randy Weaver's wife during the 1992 Ruby Ridge standoff in Idaho.
In a case testing whether federal agents are immune to state prosecution, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals cleared the way for Idaho prosecutors to charge agent Lon T. Horiuchi in the death of Vicki Weaver, 42. The federal government declined to prosecute the agent.
"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 ruling.
The court agreed with Boundary County, Idaho, attorney Ramsey Clark, a former U.S. attorney general who argued in December that immunity cannot be granted until there's a trial to determine whether Horiuchi acted unlawfully.
"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.
There was no immediate comment from Clark.
Standoff Prompted Nationwide Debate
The standoff in northern Idaho prompted a nationwide debate on the use of force by federal agencies. Ruby Ridge, where the Weaver family lived, has become synonymous with high-profile clashes, including the Branch Davidian siege near Waco, Texas, the Freemen standoff and the Oklahoma City bombing.
The standoff 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.
The cabin had been under surveillance for several months when 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.
During the standoff, Horiuchi 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.
Civil Suits Settled
A wounded Harris later surrendered, as did Weaver. Both men were acquitted of murder, conspiracy and other federal charges. Weaver was convicted of failing to appear for trial on the firearms charge.
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.
In 1995, the government paid Weaver and his three surviving children $3.1 million for the killings of Weaver's wife and son.