FBI agents testify on '63 blast

Experts detail bomb scene in ex-Klansman's trial

April 26, 2001|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963 is one of the most infamous events in civil rights history, and yet yesterday, prosecutors presented two expert witnesses to testify that the explosion that killed four black girls was caused by a bomb.

Prosecutors said they needed two FBI agents to verify that a bomb - rather than an accident such as a gas explosion - caused the deaths of the girls as part of their case charging former Ku Klux Klansman Thomas Blanton Jr., 62, with murder.

U.S. Attorney Doug Jones said his presentation of evidence and testimony in the decades-old crime was proceeding more rapidly than anticipated and he could rest his case by tomorrow. Blanton's attorney, John Robbins, agreed that the trial would probably take less than the original estimate of several weeks, saying he likely would need less than two days, if that, to make his case.

The quickening pace came as a surprise because the trial seemed to hit a snag as attorneys argued over whether an FBI agent could show a videotape of an explosion that he created to replicate the Birmingham blast and the kind of damage it caused. District Judge James Garrett would not allow the tape to be shown yesterday, although he did let the agent describe it.

Charles Killion, an FBI explosives expert who was sent to the church shortly after the explosion on the morning of Sept. 15, 1963, said that agents painstakingly examined and tested the debris and parts of the building affected by the blast. Yet they could not find any traces of explosives or any remaining bits of the bomb, he said, and could not say whether it was detonated by a lighted fuse or by a previously set timer. Still, even without physical evidence, he said, the damage caused by the blast was consistent with what a bomb would cause.

Killion said the bomb was likely placed or thrown close to if not abutting the church and blasted a 7-by-7-foot hole through a wall that was two layers of brick thick. It also created a 5 1/2 -by-2 1/2 -foot crater through the foundation. The four girls who were killed were in the basement at the time.

Another FBI agent, Mark Whitmore, who has also investigated the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, reviewed photos and reports of the Birmingham church blast and came to the same conclusion as his predecessor did 37 1/2 years ago: A bomb certainly was what caused the carnage that Sunday morning.

Among other witnesses prosecutors have said will testify is a former Klansman working as an FBI informant who secretly taped conversations with Blanton and the defendant's ex-wife. Prosecutors also want to play tapes from a wiretap that the FBI planted in Blanton's home in which he allegedly is heard talking about the bombing.

Robbins said he has not decided if Blanton will testify in his own defense.

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