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Court Says 'Shoot to Kill' Practice Used by FBI at Ruby Ridge Unlawful

By Henry Weinstein
Los Angeles Times

A federal appeals court in San Francisco Thursday excoriated the FBI for the conduct of its agents during the deadly August 1992 siege at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, saying the "shoot to kill" policy agents used was "a gross deviation from constitutional principles and a wholly unwarranted return to a lawless and arbitrary wild-West school of law enforcement."

In a unanimous decision written by Los Angeles Judge Stephen Reinhardt, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said the special rules which led to the death of the wife and 10-month-old daughter of white separatist Randy Weaver and the severe wounding of their friend Kevin Harris "violated clearly established law and any reasonable law enforcement officer should have been aware of that fact."

The three-judge panel reached these conclusions while rejecting the contentions of 13 FBI agents and U.S. marshals that they were entitled to qualified immunity for their conduct at Ruby Ridge.

The decision Thursday in Harris vs. Horiuchi paves the way for a $10 million civil rights case filed by Harris against the agents to go forward to trial, unless the ruling is reversed by a larger panel of 9th Circuit judges or the Supreme Court.

Harris' lawyer, David Z. Nevin, of Boise, Idaho, said he was pleased about Thursday's 9th Circuit decision. "We're looking forward to getting this case to trial and airing these issues. This is one step in an extremely long road," Nevin said.

Thursday's decision represents the latest of many black marks against the FBI stemming from the Ruby Ridge incident, an event that became a rallying symbol for many anti-government activists including convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy J. McVeigh.

The siege began when U.S. marshals seeking to apprehend Randy Weaver on a weapons charge came upon Harris, Weaver, his 14-year-old son Sammy and the family dog near the Weaver property. A marshal shot and killed the dog, prompting Sammy to fire at the marshal. Soon thereafter, another marshal shot and killed Sammy and in an ensuing gun battle U.S. marshal Michael Degan was also shot and killed. Not long afterward, a team of FBI sharpshooters from the agency's Hostage and Rescue Team arrived at the area and the following day one of them shot and killed Weaver's wife and daughter.

Normally, the hostage team operates under the FBI's standard rules of engagement, which provide that "an FBI agent may kill a person with whom he or she comes into contact only when the person presents an immediate risk of death or great bodily harm to the agent or another person."

However, as Thursday's decision emphasized, a group of FBI and Marshal Service officials created special rules for Ruby Ridge after the shootout. The special rules provided that "any armed adult male observed in the vicinity of the Weaver cabin could and should be killed."