Vicki Weaver, Fire and Rain

By Walter Lee

"Just yesterday morning they let me know you were gone
Suzanne, the plans they made put an end to you.
Woke up this morning and I wrote down this song.
Just can't remember who to send it to.

O, I've seen fire and I've see rain.
Seen sunny days, I thought would never end.
Seen lonely times when I could not find a friend
But I always thought that I'd see you again."

from "Fire and Rain" by James Taylor

It's not a girl, but the America of my youth. It's not a song, but simply scattered thoughts. Still, the feeling is the same emptiness, and I am at a loss as to where they might best be directed.

Vicki Weaver died in the doorway of an Idaho cabin. Lon Horiuchi, an FBI HRT team member, launched the bullet that killed her. Horiuchi's supervisors issued orders that can be called suspicious, at best. No one disputes these facts.

The people of the United States understand and accept the law enforcement is a potentially dangerous occupation. They understand that there are a lot of "crazies" out there who may or may not directly threaten the public and their law enforcement agents. People understand that lethal force is sometimes necessary in defense of self or another life. People also understand that when lethal force is used, there is the potential for accidental injury or death. Law enforcement officers (along with others) have to make split second decisions in pressure packed moments. When they do everything right, its "just part of the job." When mistakes are made, by agents or their supervisors, then there is a lot of second guessing. Sometimes such "mistakes" are mere accidents for which there is no criminal liability. Sometimes the "mistakes" are negligent and subject to penalties of law.

When a questionable incident occurs, we have systems in place to deal with them. In the America of my youth, I was told that each person was equal before the law-- that each person-- rich, poor, or in between; black, white, brown, yellow or red; liberal or conservative; male or female-- was equally responsible for his or her actions. The key to this equality was a trial by a jury of one's peers. They would examine the facts, if not the law, and determine whether or not actions were reasonable, or at least lawful or unlawful, according to the standards of our society. It seems that I was misinformed.

When the gunsmoke and heat of the moment cleared on Ruby Ridge, the judicial system went into operation. Randy Weaver and Kevin Harris were tried for murder and a host of lesser charges. A jury of their peers judged the facts of several years of law enforcement strategy, tactics and implementation, along with Weaver's and Harris' response. After consideration of all that had been done, Weaver and Harris were acquitted of all charges, save one count of failing to respond to a summons. Law enforcement was censured by the judge for abusing the system, including falsifying and withholding evidence.

The results of the trial caused a number of people to suspect that something was wrong. The issue came before Congress who held televised hearings on "the incident at Ruby Ridge." They came to the conclusion that something was terribly wrong. FBI and ATF officials promised reform. The Department of Justice settled a civil suit with the Weavers, paying $3.1 million dollars, without admitting fault. So far, so good.

But Vicki Weaver is still dead. Everyone seems to affirm that her death was a wrongful act. Wrongful acts causing death are illegalities subject to criminal, not civil, penalties. What crime was committed-- murder, manslaughter, negligent homicide-- was a matter for the technicalities of the law. Whether the actions were justified were issues to be determined by the facts of the case-- the job of the jury. Whether Lon Horiuchi was the guilty party or whether he acted reasonably in following what Congress called "unlawful rules of engagement" was an issue to be determined-- by a jury.

The calendar pages turned. The Department of Justice refused to prosecute. Finally, the case was settled at the Federal level with no criminal action perceived or prosecuted. The People of the State of Idaho then took up the challenge. A local prosecutor submitted facts to a Grand Jury. They found cause to indict. The matter would be brought to trial. The facts were simple as stated above. Vicki Weaver was dead. Lon Horiuchi directly caused the death. It happened in Idaho. No person is above the law.

And then we learn that we are wrong. Some people are. Federal agents "in the performance of their duties" are not subject to state laws. Such is an act of Congress. There was a time when "federal agents" had no duty within the boundaries of a state, except to deliver the mail! Now we find an entire class of people not subject to state action--people exempted from the law.

Part of this makes sense. Consider laws regulating the carrying of a concealed weapon. There are a patchwork of such laws, differing in every state. If FBI agents are required by their job descriptions to carry weapons, it would make no sense for them to be subject to arrest in states which did not allow weapons to be carried. (Whether such laws should be on the books is another discussion.) The intent of Congress' exemption from state law may be reasonable in some cases. But a blanket exemption from all criminal law is another matter all together!? As a local police officer said, "Every federal agent thinks he's "f**king James Bond, with a license to kill. If they do, there's not a d**ned thing we can do about it. It's been that way for years." The police know this, but its news to me, and I suspect, to most of the public."

Apparently the court actions in the Ruby Ridge case are exceptional only in the fact that the State of Idaho tried to take action in this wrongful death. A federal judge moved the action from state court to a federal court where the charges were dropped. Whether Horiuchi got off with murder (or manslaughter or negligent homicide) will never be determined. He may have committed no crime in the eyes of the jury, but we will never know. Horiuchi will live under a cloud of thwarted process for the rest of his life, and the citizens of this nation will be left living with the knowledge that there is no recourse for wrongs done to them by federal agents unless the federal government decides to punish its own. Somehow the punishment often meted out in "days off," letters of censure, demotions, transfers and forced retirements fall far short of "equality under the law." If anyone else was found guilty of taking a life, the penalties would be much more severe.

I am an amateur student of history. I cannot help but recall the "long train of abuses" listed in the Declaration of Independence. Some of them are recalled to mind as yesterday's decision was announced:

"He (King George) has refused his assent to laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has obstructed the administration of justice, by refusing to assent to laws for establishing judiciary powers.

He has made judges dependent on his will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

He has erected a multitude of new offices, and sent hither swarms of officers, to harass our people and eat out their substance.

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitutions, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his assent to their acts of pretended legislation.

For protecting them by a mock trial, from punishment for any murders which they should commit on the inhabitants of these states.

For depriving us, in many cases of the benefit of trial by jury.

For taking away our charters, abolishing our most valuable laws, and altering, fundamentally, the forms of our governments."

King George acted not alone. Generally, Parliament and the king's judges acted with him in unison. They acted under the color of English law. It all looked official, but the colonist could look at the results. They didn't like what they saw. It didn't pass the "smell test," in spite of what they were told. The colonist were fed the line that they were "free Englishmen," but as they looked at their lives, they could see the limits on their freedom. They were free to do the will of the King. No regime enforces penalties for absolute obedience to the whims and wishes of the powers that be.

What we are discovering is that the States, which created the Federal government, have lost all illusions of sovereignty. We live by the good will of the Federal government. All power is now invested in the President, the Congress and the Supreme Court. States are legally powerless, and citizens have no right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness apart from the whim and will of Federal officials. The people and the States who were to be a check against federal abuse are being systematically stripped of their power to effectively resist anything.

The reality is our "not-so-secret-agents" have a license to kill. And there is nothing we can do about it short of revolt. That revolt may come at the polls. It may not come at all. For the Founders of this nation, that day came, but we are different people and this is a different time. We may be willing to accept such abuse in stride, check the stock market figures, weigh the benefits of life in this society against the uncertainties of change, and continue with the lives we live, but we will never be able to think of ourselves as free. Perhaps we never were. Maybe, the America of my youth never really was. Certainly, it is now gone, and I never had a chance to say goodbye.

"Just yesterday morning, they let me know you were gone.
America, the plans they made put and end to you.
Woke up this morning and I wrote down these thoughts.
Just can't remember who to send them to

O, I've seen fire and I've seen rain
Seen sunny days I thought would never end
Seen lonely times when I could not find a friend
But I always thought I'd see you again"

Mr. Lee once wore a badge.