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Bill Johnston is one of the main reasons that public attention was refocused in recent years on the government’s actions in the deadly 1993 raid on the Branch Davidian compound. A Waco, Texas-based Assistant U.S. Attorney who had prosecuted the surviving Davidians in criminal trials, he allowed a documentary filmmaker to review evidence in 1999 that allegedly indicated that government agents used pyrotechnic devices in the raid — something that U.S. Department of Justice officials denied for six years. He later wrote a letter to then-Attorney General Janet Reno informing her that he believed critical evidence in the raid had been shielded from her by DOJ officials. Those career-threatening actions earned him some praise. In 2000, Texas Monthly named Johnston in its “Texas 20,” calling him the “Waco White Hat.” He later resigned from the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the Western District. As part of a special counsel investigation, the DOJ indicted Johnston — now with the Law Office of Susan Kelly in Waco — on obstruction of justice charges for not turning over his notes on the raid to government officials. Last year U.S. District Judge Walter Smith of Waco affirmed an advisory jury’s defense verdict in Branch Davidian Survivors, et al. v. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms, et al., a wrongful-death civil suit in which survivors and family members of the people who died inside the Branch Davidian compound sued the federal government alleging wrongful death. A DOJ spokesman could not be reached for comment. On Feb. 6, in a federal court in St. Louis, Johnston pleaded guilty to misprision of a felony charge and is awaiting sentencing. He recently spoke with Texas Lawyer senior reporter John Council about why he took the plea and what the Branch Davidian case has done to his career. Texas Lawyer: What evidence exactly did the special counsel prosecutors accuse you of withholding? Bill Johnston: My own trial notes, notes that indicated that the FBI had fired [military tear gas] in 1993. And I had been accused of attending a meeting where these things had been said. Fellow prosecutors had said I had been in a meeting where I had heard these things — which I was not. They accused me of being in a meeting with an agent who had said these things, and I was not in the meeting. I apparently heard this second-hand. TL: Did you have strategic reasons for withholding that information or was it just a mistake? Johnston: I had reasons born out of distrust. TL: Distrust of whom? Johnston: Well, those that had accused me of being in meetings that I hadn’t been in — those in the [U.S.] Justice Department. I’m not saying it was not a mistake. I’m saying I wasn’t in that meeting. TL: You essentially allowed a documentary filmmaker access to the evidence that reignited the controversy over the government’s role in the Branch Davidian raid. Did you know the consequences of your actions at that time? Johnston: I mean, all I wanted to do was let him in so he would not, and others would not, say the government had something to hide. That’s all I was trying to do. And if the government [simply would have] acknowledged what happened, there wouldn’t have been a problem. But they didn’t acknowledge it. TL: Much has been reported about your writing Janet Reno and alerting her about the evidence. Why plead guilty when you’ve been portrayed as a good guy in this saga for years? Johnston: I didn’t plead guilty to anything they indicted me for. They charged me with obstruction of justice and five counts of false statements. I did not plead guilty to that and was not guilty of that. I have publicly stated for months that I didn’t give the notes [over to the government]. I didn’t destroy them, and instead I had retained them. What I pled to was a misprision of felony, which was not telling on myself about the notes. But I have for several months now publicly acknowledged that I had retained the notes. TL: By pleading guilty to a felony, do you expect you can keep your law license? Johnston: Well, I cannot speak for the [State] Bar [of Texas]. All I can say is that the attorneys that have researched this on my behalf have said the misprision of felony does not involve moral turpitude and therefore is not a compulsory punishment. The office of special counsel has agreed not to file a grievance on it. TL: What have you been doing since stepping down as an assistant U.S. attorney in Waco? Johnston: I’ve been trying to make a living. I’ve been doing criminal-defense work and some plaintiffs work. I’m in a small firm. [Business has] been hot and cold. But since this resolution, I’m looking forward to criminal-defense work. One attorney in Houston said, “Now you’ve been a prosecutor, a criminal-defense lawyer and a criminal defendant. And that gives you a perspective that is invaluable.” And I’m going to try to use that perspective. TL: What are your plans for the future? Johnston: Just the same. TL: Is there anything you would have done differently regarding the Branch Davidian evidence? Johnston: Well, the Davidian case is one where everybody involved would have done a thousand things different had they known. There were no easy answers at any point and still aren’t.

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