2 held in 1963 church blast

Birmingham, Ala., bombing killed four black girls

Men longtime suspects

Aging defendants were affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan

May 18, 2000|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - Nearly 37 years after a bombing that horrified the nation, authorities here charged two longtime suspects with murder yesterday in the deaths of four black girls in the explosion at Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church.

Thomas E. Blanton Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry, both of whom were affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan and have been considered suspects for decades in the 1963 bombing, turned themselves in yesterday morning after being indicted by a state grand jury Tuesday.

They are being held in the Jefferson County jail here without bond.

Only one man, Robert Chambliss, has ever been tried in the case, and that was not until 1977, 14 years after the bombing. He was convicted of murder, sentenced to life and died in prison in 1985.

Herman Cash, named as a suspect in early FBI case files, died in 1994 without being charged.

Federal authorities reopened their investigation of the bombing in 1996, encouraged by recent successful prosecutions of other decades-old killings in civil rights cases.

But they declined yesterday to discuss the evidence they have gathered against Blanton, 61, of Birmingham, and Cherry, 69, of Mabank, Texas.

Several of Cherry's relatives, including an ex-wife and a granddaughter, have said they told grand jurors that Cherry had boasted of taking part in the bombing.

But there is little information about what additional new evidence, if any, investigators might have found to implicate either Cherry or Blanton.

Asked about the evidence at a news conference yesterday, Doug Jones, the U.S. attorney here, would say only, "We expect the evidence today to be a good bit different than it would have been 36 years ago."

The evidence lent itself better to a prosecution under state charges rather than federal ones, he said.

Though some witnesses have died and there have been no reports of new physical evidence, prosecutors said yesterday that they were optimistic about their chances to win convictions.

"The witnesses that we have, we believe, are sufficient to sustain the charge," Jones said.

Blanton and Cherry were each charged with eight counts of murder, two counts for each of the four girls. The counts cover intentional murder and universal malice because the bomb could have killed many more people.

A special case

The Birmingham bombing holds a special place in civil rights history because of the randomness of its violence, the sacredness of its target and the innocence of its victims.

The four girls - Denise McNair, 11, and Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, all 14 - died in a dressing room in the church basement when the bomb detonated at 10:19 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 15, 1963.

The bomb, apparently hidden under the church steps the night before, blew the face of Jesus out of a stained glass window. The bodies of the girls, dressed in white for an annual youth service, were found beneath the rubble.

The church had been a center of civil rights activity in Birmingham, a city that experienced some of the most violent resistance to desegration of the day.

Perhaps as much as any single act, the bombing aroused public sentiment against Southern segregationists and emboldened civil rights leaders to redouble their efforts.

More recently, the incident was the subject of Spike Lee's acclaimed documentary, "Four Little Girls."

In an unusual circumstance, the cases brought yesterday will be tried in the state courts here even though the FBI and federal prosecutors have led the re-examination of the bombing.

Jones said his ability to prosecute the case in the federal courts was hindered by jurisdictional issues and by the statute of limitations.

He declined to address comments made by one of Cherry's lawyers in published reports that he had offered Cherry a light sentence in exchange for a guilty plea on federal charges of interstate transportation of dynamite. In cases where the dynamite causes a death, that charge is not subject to the statute of limitations.

David Barber, the district attorney here, said he would not pursue the death penalty against Blanton and Cherry..

Neither Blanton nor Cherry made any public comment yesterday as they were brought to jail by their lawyers.

Lawyers for both men said their clients would plead not guilty.

"He has maintained his innocence for 37 years," said David S. Luker, Blanton's attorney. "You just wonder what information they possess now that they didn't possess for the last 37 years.

"People's memories don't get better with time, just worse."

Mickey Johnson, one of Cherry's lawyers, said he was trying to soothe his client, who has suffered two heart attacks. "We're trying to keep him somewhat positive in his outlook," he said. "He's an old man."

Proclaimed innocence

Unlike Blanton, who has made few comments about the bombing over the years, Cherry has proclaimed his innocence in frequent interviews and news conferences.

While he acknowledged his past membership in the Klan, he has maintained he was at his Birmingham home watching wrestling on television the night the bomb was planted.

A recent report in the Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Miss., disclosed that there were no wrestling programs on television in Birmingham that night.

Cherry has been in Alabama since May 4, when he was extradited from Texas on charges that he sexually abused his former stepdaughter when she was a child.

That charge emerged as the stepdaughter and other relatives were called to testify before a grand jury about the bombing case.

Maxine McNair, the only parent of a victim who could be reached yesterday, said she and her husband, a longtime county commissioner here, had decided not to comment about the indictments.

"It's an interesting day, I'll put it that way," she said.

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