Church bombing case reopens wound to heal it

37 years later, trial to open in Birmingham

April 15, 2001|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - Some of the evidence lay buried in FBI wiretaps ordered sealed by former Director J. Edgar Hoover.

Other evidence against two former Ku Klux Klansmen, prosecutors say, remained behind the sealed lips of relatives too scared to talk.

But more than 37 years after four black girls were killed in a dynamite bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, those seals have been broken. And a team of state and federal attorneys is poised to shed light on one of the darkest chapters in U.S. civil rights history.

Jury selection begins tomorrow in the trial of Thomas E. Blanton Jr., 62, who with Bobby Frank Cherry, 71, faces four counts of first-degree murder. They were to be tried together, but Circuit Judge James Garrett noted "medical reasons" Tuesday for postponing Cherry's trial indefinitely.

In interviews, pretrial motions and court hearings, prosecutors have revealed hours of recordings of the defendants' conversations after the 1963 bombing - picked up by telephone wiretaps and a bug placed behind a kitchen sink. There is also the testimony from a former wife, an estranged son and a former Klansman who for years was a paid FBI informant.

If convicted, Blanton and Cherry could face life in prison. Each says he is not guilty.

Even though the FBI had named the men as prime suspects within weeks after the bombing, not everyone is happy about bringing them to trial now - especially here in Birmingham, which has worked to reinvent itself since the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed it the most segregated big city in the nation.

"There are some whites who feel this just inflames old wounds," said Richard Arrington Jr., who in 1979 became the city's first black mayor. "But with the suspects out there and never brought to trial, this case never goes away. It continues to be a negative cloud over the city."

The new evidence - and the passage of time - means it's now or never, says U.S. Attorney Doug Jones. "This is the last roundup. People are getting old, and there will never be another opportunity to handle a case of such importance," said Jones, 46, a Birmingham native who was 9 when the bomb went off.

In 1963, Blanton - the son of well-known racist Thomas E. "Pops" Blanton Sr. - was a 25-year-old former Navy mechanic working in a stockroom. Cherry, then 33, was a truck driver and father of seven who had been trained in explosives while in the Marines. Wyman Lee was friends with both when all were members of the Klan's Eastview Klavern No. 13. "They were good ol' boys," said Lee, 62.

In the months after the bombing, Blanton, Cherry and two other suspects, Robert E. Chambliss and Frank Cash, were interviewed repeatedly by FBI agents. They denied any role in the bombing, but they did not deny approving of the results.

For years, the church bombing investigation languished.

Still, local FBI agents believed they could make a case. But in Washington, Hoover - saying the "chance of a successful prosecution in state or federal court is very remote" - ordered that evidence from the wiretaps and the informant be withheld from prosecutors.

In 1971, after 28-year-old William J. Baxley was elected Alabama attorney general, he fulfilled a vow he'd made as a law student and assigned a team of lawyers and investigators to the case.

Assisted by the release of some FBI files, Baxley prosecuted Chambliss in 1977 for first-degree murder. He was convicted, and died in prison in 1985. But with witnesses fearful of reprisals, Baxley could not make a case against Blanton, Cherry or Cash. Again, the investigation stalled.

Then, in 1993, FBI agent Rob Langford was named to head the Birmingham office. After a get-acquainted meeting with local black leaders, Langford said, he learned how the killings haunted the black community. And he reopened the investigation.

In 1994, Cash died without being charged. Two years later, Langford retired. But Bill Fleming, the investigator first assigned to the case, never gave up. He interviewed 800 people and pored over 9,000 federal documents, many withheld from previous investigators, to set the stage for Jones.

For the families of the victims, the wait for justice has seemed interminable.

"We knew the names of the men back in 1963, and at first we thought they would catch up with them," said Alpha Robertson, 81, whose daughter, Carole, was a victim.

Eventually, Robertson said, "I put whatever would happen completely out of my mind. If they were not convicted, they would still have to pay for it with their conscience. If they have one."

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