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By the time jurors render a verdict in the trial beginning Monday in Waco, Texas, the tragedy that unfolded near there seven years ago will be one of the most investigated events in American history. The chief question remains whether federal lawmen provoked the siege unnecessarily -- and whether they started the fires and pinned the occupants inside with gunfire to let them die.

It is the image that defense attorneys will hammer at again and again, reports CBS News Correspondent Jim Stewart.

"People died. And they died the most agonizing, horrible death that anybody could possibly endure: burning alive," said Michael Caddell, attorney for the Branch Davidians.

It took just 90 minutes Monday to choose six jurors and one alternate, who will advise a federal judge whether the government is partially to blame for the deadly end to the Waco siege. Opening statements are expected Tuesday.

The Branch Davidians are charging the government with wrongful death and seeking $675 million.

But lately, the Davidians are saying this is less about money and more about principle, as one by one their chief allegations appear to be collapsing under close examination.

For example, the suit alleges that FBI agents fired at the Davidians during the final moments of the siege. Yet ballistics tests show "no FBI weapons were fired at any time in the siege." And the Davidians acknowledge they have "no proof anyone was killed by government gunfire."

So what were those mysterious flashes seen on aerial surveillance tapes? The Davidians said they were government snipers. But an analyst agreed to by both sides, and Sen. John Danforth who is conducting an independent investigation separate from the trial, said the flashes were just sunlight reflecting off debris.

And then there's the question of the fires. The Davidians say government tanks started them. Independent arson experts say the evidence is clear that the Davidians started them -- the same conclusion they reached for two congressional investigations.

"I don't think we have any evidence that there was wrongdoing by anyone in the government," said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Texas, "but I don't think we can reach that conclusion absolutely until we see what comes up at this trial, and more importantly until we hear from Sen. Danforth."

David Thibodeau, a Davidian who was inside the compound when the 51-day standoff came to an end, said Monday on CBS News' The Early Show, "There's a lot of information that the American public hasn't had. I'm grateful the trial is here and a jury will be able to hear all the information."

For the government, the trial is important to restore faith in law enforcement.

"The videos that have been recently looked into showed (federal agents) didn't fire into the compound that day," Clint Van Zant, the FBI's chief hostage negotiator during the crisis, said on The Early Show. There is responsibility, perhaps to be shared. But as a negotiator, 850 times we asked the Branch Davidians to come out - 850 times they turned us down."

The ordeal began on Feb. 28, 1993, when agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms tried to serve several Branch Davidian members with search and arrest warrants for suspected firearms violations.

A gunfight ensued; four agents and six Davidians were killed. Twenty-eight agents were injured, along with an unknown number of Davidians, including sect leader Koresh. The FBI took over the situation and a standoff between the Davidians and the government agents began.

"'Koresh is going to use the children as bait,' we thought and the FBI will go in and he'll kill us if he can and blow the building up and there will be a mass suicide," Van Zant said. "Unfortunately, he did what we thought he would do."

Early on April 19, the FBI launched a tear gas operation to end the siege. Fire broke out around noon and the compound burned to the ground. No firefighting equipment was allowed near the compound.


© 2000 CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report
  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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