By Ben Olson
Editor’s Note: In this, the fifth and final article on the stand-off at Ruby Ridge, we will share the close of the trial, the verdict and the aftermath of this incident. Special thanks goes out to Trish Gannon, who helped fact check and proofread the first few articles in this series, as well as the journalists who covered the story as it happened. In compiling these articles, I relied on many books and newspaper clippings, as well as interviews with key players in the trial.
Motion to Dismiss
It was June 11, 1993: one day after the prosecution led by Ron Howen rested its case against Randy Weaver and Kevin Harris. In a surprise move, defense attorneys Gerry Spence and David Nevin, who represented Weaver and Harris respectively, rested their own cases without calling a single witness to the stand.
Spence began the day with a motion to dismiss all charges, claiming that the prosecution failed to prove any aspect of the case against Weaver and Harris.
Howen rose to argue against the dismissal, but 15 minutes into his response, Howen seemed to lose his momentum. According to Dean Miller of the Spokesman-Review, Howen’s “left hand was shaking violently and his delivery lacked its characteristic vigor.”
“I’m sorry, Judge, I can’t continue,” Howen told Judge Lodge, who then called a recess. Howen would not argue any more of the case.
While the U.S. Attorney’s office declined repeated requests from Miller for an explanation of Howen’s behavior, the Reader asked Howen why he walked out in an interview this month.
“The short answer was that I ‘hit the wall,’” Howen wrote. “I had initially decided to try the case by myself when my ‘little voice/internal alarm’ started going off during and immediately after the standoff. Several (U.S. attorneys) from other districts … volunteered to be part of a trial team. But I couldn’t ask anyone else to put their career on the line and warned them off particularly when it became apparent to me that someone very high up in FBI/DOJ land had authorized what Gerry Spence later fairly accurately stated were ‘shoot to kill orders.’”
After the recess, Howen’s co-counsel Kim Lindquist didn’t finish Howen’s argument against the defense’s motion to drop all charges. Judge Lodge then dismissed charge six and eight from the indictment, claiming that evidence did not prove these charges.
Count six originally dealt with Weaver and Harris allegedly firing upon an FBI helicopter the day Vicki Weaver was killed by FBI sniper Lon Horiuchi. Judge Lodge ruled there was no evidence of a threat to the helicopter.
Count eight alleged that Weaver received 14 firearms and thousands of rounds of ammunition while being a federal fugitive. Judge Lodge ruled that evidence suggested Weaver had owned the firearms in question before he became a federal fugitive.
Judge Lodge also reserved the option to dismiss count nine charging Kevin Harris with “harboring and concealing” Weaver while he was a fugitive.
The remaining seven counts would be presented to the jury.
In arguing in favor of dismissal of all charges, attorneys Spence and Nevin spelled out what they thought was a troubling case by the prosecution. They questioned whether the U.S. marshals were acting in their official capacity on the first day of the shootout since no evidence showed they had a warrant for Weaver’s arrest.
Spence and Nevin also argued that the rules of engagement issued by the FBI had been illegal under Idaho law and that federal officers were not authorized to follow them. Spence’s argument that Idaho law could not be superseded by federal agents.
Spence was also able to persuade Judge Lodge to give instructions to the jury that the religious beliefs of Randy Weaver and Kevin Harris could not be held against them in a court of law.
The next day, with the courtroom filled to capacity, Kim Lindquist presented the closing arguments for the prosecution built around an alleged conspiracy against the government by the defendants.
Lindquist began by arguing that Weaver was an illegal gun dealer who had been plotting for more than a decade to get into a confrontation, and that as soon as the confrontation happened, Weaver wanted to appear as a victim.
Lindquist then mapped out the prosecution’s case, starting with the Weaver’s religious beliefs in Iowa, claiming that the U.S. government was not persecuting Weaver for his religious beliefs, but those beliefs and actions by Weaver eventually led to Weaver and Harris going too far.
Lindquist argued that the government had shown remarkable restraint and reasonableness after Weaver failed to appear for illegal firearms charges. He said the government “bent over backward” trying to avoid a confrontation for 18 months, and when the conflict came, it wasn’t the government’s doing.
David Nevin presented the defense’s closing arguments first, leading off with a quote by George Washington that stated, “Government is not reason, it is not eloquence; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.”
Nevin then chipped away at the government’s version of events in the case, reminding the jury of several key issues brought up during the trial. He talked about how Harris had not fired the first shot, how the marshals claimed to be on a surveillance mission appeared to be on more of an action mission. Nevin also raised a doubt that Kevin Harris’ bullet had been the one that killed Marshal William Degan, showing that the backpack worn by Degan at the time of his death had a second exit hole of a bullet that the FBI lab seemed to have missed. Nevin argued that the existence of this second exit hole showed evidence that Marshal Larry Cooper, not Harris, could have been the one who fired the fatal shot that killed Marshal Degan.
“I’m not saying that this is what happened for sure,” Nevin told the jury. “I’m only saying this is a possible scenario — but one that is at least as consistent with the evidence and as believable as anything the government has proposed about how William Degan died.”
After a break for lunch, Gerry Spence issued his closing arguments. He started by shaking hands with his client, his fellow attorneys and their wives, and telling the jury, “You may be the most important jury that’s come along for many a decade.”
Spence told the 12 men and women that their purpose in this trial wasn’t to find out who wins the case, but that they were responsible for holding the government accountable for its actions.
Spence argued that the government had attempted to sweep the deaths of Sammy and Vicki Weaver under the rug, and that the prosecution’s entire case had been built around the approach to demonize Randy Weaver.
Spence’s tone, according to first-hand accounts, was even-keeled and inquisitive, but pointed. He essentially asked, “How did all this happen?” and spelled out the events that had led them to court; that the marshals had realized they shot a little boy in the back and the government began orchestrating a cover-up to demonize Weaver and take some of the blame off of themselves.
Spence then gave a moving tribute to the late Vicki Weaver, arguing that “if she were standing in this courtroom today, I’d go up to her and give her a big hug — and tell her I’m glad we have people who are no longer afraid of the government.”
Looking at the jury, Spence told them, “You have more power than anybody, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.” He then laid out several examples for how the government had botched the incident at Ruby Ridge as well as the case. He said the BATF agent who tried to turn Weaver into an informant was the one who “started it all,” that if Weaver had agreed to be a snitch, the agent, “would have kissed him on both cheeks.”
Spence concluded by summarizing all the evidence that proved the prosecution had not proved anything they set out to prove, telling the jury, “Ladies and gentlemen, Randy and Kevin are in your hands. You can free them or imprison them.”
Judge Lodge sequestered the jury, which began its deliberations on June 16. On June 29, the 72-year-old jury foreman was excused from the case because of health issues. A new foreman was chosen, but because the alternate juror had not participated in deliberations, the jury had to start anew.
The jury began their 14th day of deliberations on July 1, which was a new record for a jury to make a decision in a criminal case in the state of Idaho.
On July 8, 1993, the jury returned with a verdict that the New York Times’ Timothy Egan called “a strong rebuke of the government’s use of force during an armed siege.”
Kevin Harris was acquitted of all charges. The jury found that Harris’ actions that led to the death of Marshal Degan were committed in self-defense.
Randy Weaver was acquitted of all serious charges — murder, conspiracy, aiding and abetting — but was found guilty of two minor charges that spawned from the original arrest, including failure to appear and violating the terms of his bail. Weaver was also found not guilty of the original weapons charge against him.
Later interviews with jurors determined that they believed the BATF undercover agents had entrapped Weaver into sawing off the shotgun. Jury Foreman John Weaver (no relation) told reporters the conspiracy charge against Weaver and Harris had been quickly dismissed. The foreman also stated that many witnesses called by the prosecution helped the defense more than the prosecution.
When the verdicts were read, both Randy Weaver and Kevin Harris wept in court.
Harris was released from custody immediately, telling reporters outside the courthouse, “I just want to thank the jury for everything. I think the right thing happened.”
The charges against Weaver carried a possible sentence of up to 15 years. Sentencing had been scheduled for Oct. 18, so Weaver remained in custody for the time being.
On the day of sentencing, the prosecution recommended a long sentence of 41 to 51 months in prison, but Judge Lodge had reserved the right to throw out count nine, claiming it did not constitute a separate offense from the failure to appear charge.
Howen, who had appeared back as lead prosecutor, amended the recommended sentence to between 30 and 37 months in prison, plus fines between $6,000 and $60,000 plus court costs.
Spence offered a guilty plea for the one remaining count three — the original failure to appear charge — if all the other charges were dropped. Howen refused the offer.
After hearing testimony from several of the jurors and Weaver’s 84-year-old father, Judge Lodge addressed the court: “Counsel do their jobs well when they put a lot of pressure on the court. I assure you, they have done that.”
Judge Lodge then lectured Weaver that he, of all people, having served in the military and having run for sheriff of Boundary County, should have respected the law enough to appear in court. Judge Lodge then predicted that his sentence would probably not please some people, but he had weighed all the factors carefully.
“There are probably very few right answers when people suffer this kind of tragedy,” he said.
Judge Lodge sentenced Randy Weaver to 18 months in jail and a fine of $10,000, plus three years of supervised probation. Because Weaver had already served 14 months in jail and was also eligible for 58 days off for good behavior, Weaver’s release was scheduled for Dec. 18, 1993.
Randy Weaver asked Judge Lodge for permission to hug his daughters, then returned to his cell at Ada County Jail.
Weaver served another four months in jail before finally being released on supervised probation.
Picking up the Pieces
On June 10, 1994, after the Department of Justice commissioned the Ruby Ridge Task Force to investigate wrongdoings the federal government may have committed during the siege of Ruby Ridge, the Task Force delivered a detailed 542-page report that compiled all the known evidence involved in the case. This report, as well as persistent questions of malfeasance by the federal government, eventually led to a series of hearings by the Senate Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology and Governmental Information in late 1995.
Throughout the 14 days of hearings, the Senate subcommittee criticized the FBI’s rules of engagement as unconstitutional. As a result of these hearings, the federal government standardized various use of deadly force policies to comply with their component agencies. The major change was the requirement of a reasonable belief of “imminent” danger of death or serious physical injury, which brought all federal use of deadly force policies in line with state and local law enforcement agencies.
In August 1994, Gerry Spence, David Nevin and Chuck Peterson filed two civil lawsuits on behalf of Randy Weaver and Kevin Harris. One suit was filed against more than a dozen federal agents seeking civil damages for the wrongful deaths of Vicki and Sammy Weaver. The other was filed against the federal government for violating the constitutional rights of Weaver, Harris and the surviving Weaver family members. The attorneys sought $200 million in damages from the federal government.
In an out-of-court settlement a year later, the federal government awarded Randy Weaver $100,000 and each of his three daughters $1 million each, though they admitted no wrongdoings in the deaths of Vicki and Sammy Weaver.
FBI sniper Lon Horiuchi, who shot and killed Vicki Weaver and wounded Randy Weaver and Kevin Harris, was indicted for manslaughter in 1997 by the Boundary County prosecutor. The suit was dismissed on grounds of sovereign immunity, then reversed, then ultimately dropped by the newly elected Boundary County Prosecutor Brett Benson.
In 1997, Kevin Harris was indicted for the first-degree murder of Marshal Degan, but the charge was dismissed on grounds of double jeopardy because he had earlier been acquitted of the same charge in 1993.
David Nevin’s civil suit filed on behalf of Kevin Harris had stalled, mainly because federal officials vowed they would never pay someone who had killed a U.S. Marshall. After repeated appeals, Harris was finally awarded a $380,000 settlement from the government in September 2000.
In October 1997, E. Michael Kahoe, the former chief of the violent crimes section at the FBI, was sentenced to 18 months in prison for destroying an “after-action” report that criticized the bureau’s role in Ruby Ridge. The 26-year veteran of the FBI had pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice.
No bar complaints were made against prosecutor Ron Howen by Judge Lodge or the defense team for his actions in the preparation and trial, but Howen’s career as a federal prosecutor was effectively over.
“You don’t make enemies by defying the FBI or DOJ without consequences,” Howen wrote to the Reader. “Ultimately, it cost me a marriage and in part, the life of my son by suicide.”
The Weaver family eventually moved near Kalispell, Mont. In a 2012 interview, Sara Weaver said she had forgiven the federal agents who had killed her mother and brother.
“I went 10 years without understanding how to heal,” until becoming a born-again Christian, she told the Associated Press. “All bitterness and anger had to go. I forgave those that pulled the trigger.”
Editor’s Note: Thank you for reading this series looking back at the Stand-Off at Ruby Ridge: 25 Years Later. Next week, we will start a series on the American Redoubt movement in Idaho, starting with an article that traces the anti-government sentiments in North Idaho that developed after Ruby Ridge and the Waco siege, the formation of various patriot movements such as the Militia of Montana, the Tea Party, the III% and eventually leading to the modern era with the Redoubt movement. I appreciate all those who assisted in these articles. -BO
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