Fighting Government Overreach

Criminal defense lawyer Dan Cogdell reflects on the Waco siege trial—a pivotal moment in his career now being revisited in a new Showtime miniseries.

Man in black suit poses for lawyer headshot

John Fields

June 15, 2023 11:00 PM

The year 2023 marks 30 years since the tragic siege of the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. For Dan Cogdell, a Houston-based criminal defense attorney, this event was a defining moment: Cogdell achieved an acquittal for his client in the murder trial of 11 Branch Davidians involved in the standoff. Now, this trial is being revisited in the new Showtime miniseries, “Waco: The Aftermath,” which offers a fresh perspective on an important moment in American history and a pivotal one in Cogdell's career.

“After trying hundreds and hundreds of cases for 40-plus years, I'm suddenly an overnight sensation,” jokes Cogdell of the miniseries, in which he is portrayed by the actor Giovanni Ribisi. “I never knew anybody else would want to be me, much less get paid to be me—it's flattering and disconcerting all at the same time.”

Reflecting on the significance of the Waco siege, Cogdell believes that it marked a turning point in American history leading to greater division and distrust between the government and its citizens. "I didn't perceive it back then, but certainly retrospectively, I think that was the beginning of the great division in our country,” he says.

“At the time, around 50% of the people we polled believed the Branch Davidians were completely guilty simply because of their religious beliefs, while the other half were outraged by the government's conduct. I think you can draw a straight line from there to what happened on January 6, 2021, when otherwise law-abiding citizens stormed the capital because they believed a false election had taken place and the government was taking away their rights. I had to laugh when I saw that Donald Trump even picked Waco as the place to launch his 2024 presidential campaign.”

I didn't perceive it back then, but certainly retrospectively, I think that was the beginning of the great division in our country."

While Cogdell has shifted his focus from "blood and guts work" like the Waco case to white-collar crime, he still observes government overreach in his current practice, though not necessarily to the extent of storming down his clients' home or business with tanks. Instead, he sees the government filing multiple charges against his clients to gain leverage during plea negotiations, engaging in unnecessary discovery disputes or violating their prosecutorial obligations imposed by the law. “One could argue that I’m more sensitive to this issue because I've seen such incredible, outrageous government misconduct in my past. But the fact remains that government prosecutors are still trampling people's rights every day. Prosecutorial violations don’t always manifest themselves in the form of a tank or tear gas, but they can be just as insidious to obtaining justice if that misconduct isn’t exposed. I’ve made it my mission to put a stop to that.

Headline Image: David Brown

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