FBI sniper Lon Horiuchi will face trial in federal court in Boise this spring for killing Vicki Weaver during a tense North Idaho standoff in 1992.
Horiuchi’s lawyers persuaded U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge on Monday to move the trial from Boundary County, saying Horiuchi will argue that he is immune from prosecution because he was carrying out his duties as a federal officer. That makes the issue suitable for federal, rather than state, court.
Boundary County Prosecutor Denise Woodbury has charged Horiuchi with involuntary manslaughter for Vicki Weaver’s death. Woodbury said Monday, “We think either court is a fair forum.”
The judge delayed a decision on whether the jury will come from southern Idaho or North Idaho.
Vicki Weaver died when she, her husband, Randy, and their four children, along with family friend Kevin Harris, holed up in the Weavers’ cabin near Naples, Idaho. Randy Weaver had refused to appear in court on a weapons charge.
When federal agents who staked out the cabin ran across Harris, Weaver and Weaver’s son Sam, a gunfight erupted that killed Sam and Deputy U.S. Marshal William Degan.
As the standoff stretched on, federal agents were ordered to fire at any armed male adult spotted outside the cabin. Horiuchi shot at both Weaver and Harris as they ran back to the cabin on the second day of the standoff.
The bullet Horiuchi fired at Harris passed through a window of the cabin door and killed Vicki Weaver before hitting and wounding Harris. She was holding the door open for Harris, and was holding her baby, Elisheba, when she died.
In a 1993 trial, Horiuchi said he didn’t see Vicki Weaver when he fired at Harris. Both Harris and Randy Weaver were acquitted of killing Degan.
Stephen Wagman, a Venice, Calif., attorney who’s helping Woodbury with the case, said Horiuchi used excessive force, so he wasn’t carrying out his duties when he fired the fatal shot.
“It cannot be objectively reasonable for any human being to fire through a door without knowing who is behind the door,” Wagman said. “It’s just not reasonable.”
But Judge Lodge said that wasn’t the issue. To move the state manslaughter trial to federal court, Horiuchi needed only to prove that he was acting as a federal officer at the time, and that he plans a defense related to federal law.
“Whether or not Mr. Horiuchi will prevail at that defense is not before the court,” Lodge said.
Patricia Maher and Adam Hoffinger, private Washington, D.C., attorneys hired by the Justice Department to represent Horiuchi, called William Luthin, the FBI’s operations and training supervisor for hostage rescue, to testify that Horiuchi was on duty when the shot was fired.
“The entire team from the time we responded…was on duty on a full-time basis,” said Luthin.
Wagman got Luthin to admit that he was at a base camp and not on the hillside with Horiuchi when Horiuchi fired the shot. But the judge was unmoved by Wagman’s argument that Luthin had “no personal knowledge” of Horiuchi’s actions.
Horiuchi sat quietly at the defendant’s table, never looking around to the nearly full courtroom. His hair clipped short in back, he looked straight ahead even while the lawyers met with the judge in the judge’s chambers for about 20 minutes before the hearing started.
Horiuchi entered a not guilty plea before U.S. Magistrate Mikel Williams, who scheduled a tentative trial date of March 10. However, Horiuchi’s lawyers said they will move to dismiss the case before then.