HOUSTON - Lawyers for five motorcycle club members charged in a mass shootout in Waco, Texas, this year have filed civil rights lawsuits against city officials.
Legal experts say the mass arrest of suspects and other actions by judges and prosecutors leave open the possibility of many more such suits and bring into question how there can be a fair trial for any of the defendants.
One hundred seventy suspects were arrested in the May 17 incident, which left nine people dead and 18 others injured.
Dallas attorneys Clint Broden and Don Tittle filed the lawsuits in federal court in Austin on behalf of five clients, naming as defendants in the case McLennan County District Attorney Abel Reyna as well as Waco’s police chief and an unnamed Texas trooper referred to as “John Doe.”
Broden, who represents three of the indicted men, explained why he filed the suits now, ahead of any trial.
“I think we need to get started with this,” he said. “I think we need to get the show on the road, and I anticipate these to be the first of many civil rights lawsuits to be filed.”
Broden said many aspects of the case are questionable. They include the mass arrest of people at the scene, as well as last week's indictment on criminal conspiracy charges of 106 suspects. He contended that many had not come to the Waco restaurant, where the violence unfolded, for anything other than a regional bikers meeting.
He said the basis for the lawsuit "is the denial of basic constitutional rights of these five individuals, such as the right to be free of unlawful arrest, the right to be able to assemble — basic constitutional rights that all of our citizens are provided.”
After announcing the first 106 indictments on November 10, Reyna declined to comment on any of the procedures involved but said more indictments might come the next time the grand jury met.
“We are not done,” he said. “We still have a lot of work to do, and we will continue to do that.”
In the aftermath of the shooting and the mass arrests in May, Waco police — backed by statements from state and federal law enforcement officials — contended that the many of the motorcyclists who had come to Waco were involved in organized crime.
They said the violence resulted from a clash between members of two motorcycle groups: the Bandidos and the Cossacks, both of which they described as gangs.
Membership is no crime
But defense attorneys said belonging to a motorcycle club is not a crime. They contended that the indictments might have been based on someone having been arrested at the scene who was wearing biker garb or biker club patches.
Houston attorney Mark Thiessen, who represents one client, said a person’s apparel should not be ground for arrest for engaging in organized criminal activity.
“Think of the Republic of Texas motorcycle rallies that happen in Galveston and Austin,” he said. “All of these motorcycle rallies have more bikers, and they are all coming with their different groups and patches — how is that not ‘organized criminal activity'?”
Thiessen and other attorneys also said they wanted to see tests done on the bullets taken from the bodies of those killed in the shooting. “Who is responsible for these deaths?” he asked. “Was it all the police? We don’t know yet.”
Waco police have said that three officers on the scene did fire their weapons, expending a total of 12 rounds. But witnesses said they saw several undercover police officers on the scene brandishing weapons, and there has been no official account to clarify who shot whom in the melee.
Attorneys representing the accused are not the only ones complaining about official handling of the Waco case. Legal experts from various civil rights groups, law firms and law schools have raised questions.
“There are problems with the actual charges that they have been charged with, engaging in organized crime to commit murder or assault. There are problems with the grand jury process. There are problems with the evidence that they have for each of these men,” said Amanda Peters, a former prosecutor who now teaches at the South Texas College of Law in Houston.
Peters said a criminal indictment is supposed to be for an individual, with particular evidence presented against that individual. But she said the grand jury met for only nine hours, leaving only five minutes per case, assuming that no one went to lunch or took a bathroom break during that entire time.
She said it appeared that the prosecutor handed the grand jury members evidence of being involved in a criminal conspiracy against all 106 men as a group.
“The American Bar Association actually states that prosecutors are only supposed to charge for crimes that were actually committed, and I do not believe that the prosecutor can possibly be in the position of thinking that all 106 of these men committed that crime,” Peters said.
In his comments to reporters following the grand jury indictments last week, Reyna brushed off such criticism, saying he was concerned only with the facts of the case.
“Everyone involved is going to give careful consideration, deliberation. We are going to analyze the evidence, and we are just going to see that justice is done," he said.
Trial dates have yet to be scheduled.