Blanton talks of bombing on tape

Poor recording raises challenges

April 28, 2001|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - The voices come from the distant past on a tape so crackly that what actually is being said is among the most contentious points in the trial of ex-Klansman Thomas E. Blanton Jr., accused of bombing the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963 and killing four black girls.

"What meeting are you talking about?" Blanton's wife at the time asks, her voice shrill with anxiety, in a conversation taped by the FBI.

"You have to have a meeting if you're going to plan a bomb," Blanton responds.

That, at least, is what appears to be on a tape whose content, despite enhancement by audio experts, is frustratingly elusive: Clearly, the couple is talking about the FBI's investigation of Blanton's alleged role in the church bombing case, but individual words and entire phrases are overwhelmed by static.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys wrangled for hours over the tape, played yesterday for the first time in open court. U.S. Attorney Doug Jones, the lead prosecutor, wanted a transcript to be entered as evidence along with the tape itself, while defense lawyer John C. Robbins wanted the tape to stand on its own.

Robbins argued that the transcript is merely the government's interpretation of what the couple is saying and that jurors should be allowed to listen to the tape on their own without being told what they allegedly are hearing. Circuit Judge James Garrett allowed the jurors to see the transcript - prepared by the FBI and other federal agents - but told them to use it as an aid as they listened, not to consider it evidence. He refused to release the transcript to the media.

As muddled as the tape is, it does provide a rare glimpse behind the scenes of the church bombing investigation. The bombing, one of the most notorious crimes to occur during the civil rights movement, has stymied investigators over the years; it was not until 1977 that one man, Robert Chambliss, was charged and convicted in the case. A second suspect died without being charged, and it took until last year before Blanton and an alleged cohort, Bobby Frank Cherry, were charged. The trial of Cherry, 71, has been delayed as he undergoes further tests to determine if he is mentally competent.

Blanton was a suspect shortly after the Sept. 15, 1963, bombing because his car matched the description of one seen outside the church about eight hours before the explosion.

But the FBI had not been able to make a case against him despite repeated interviews and a continuing investigation.

In May 1964, the FBI moved in on Blanton, literally: Agent John Colvin rented an apartment next door to where Blanton and his wife, Jean, lived. Colvin told the landlord, Blanton's father, that he was Jim McBride and he worked nights driving a truck.

Agent Ralph Butler, posing as McBride's brother, Cliff, visited the apartment to help build some shelves in a closet - or so they told the Blantons. "That's what we're doing if you hear a lot of banging," they told the next-door neighbors.

"Make all the noise you want," Jean Blanton said agreeably, according to Colvin.

What the "McBrides" were doing, though, was planting a tiny microphone on the wall between their closet and the Blantons' kitchen. The work didn't make as much noise as actual shelf building, so "Cliff" sometimes banged on the wall to keep up the charade.

The mike was connected to a telephone line, which the agents monitored from another place the FBI rented about a block away.

The original reel-to-reel recordings have been converted, and a four-minute excerpt has been made into a CD that prosecutors have entered as evidence. The CD contains a conversation that audio experts have cleaned up and enhanced, filtering out some background noise and increasing the volume on some voices.

Still, the CD was almost painfully difficult to understand, although with each playing its contents became slightly clearer.

The Blantons, both of whom had been interviewed by the FBI, are apparently talking about what agents have asked Jean Blanton. At issue is a gathering on the banks of the Cahaba River, which had previously been identified as a meeting site for a new Klan group.

"Well, you didn't bother to tell me what you went to the river for, Tommy," says Jean Blanton, who has a heavy Southern accent and sounds irritated at her husband.

Thomas Blanton, whose voice is less clear on the tape than that of his wife, is heard referring to a bomb several times. U.S. Attorney Doug Jones, who is prosecuting the case, said Blanton also refers to "the big one" when talking about a bomb.

An agitated Jean Blanton also raises the issue of a date he broke with her on a weekend night before the Sunday morning bombing.

"You stood me up to go out with someone else," she says, adding, "Waylene."

At the time of the bombing, Thomas Blanton was dating both Jean Casey, his future wife, and a woman named Waylene Vaughn.

Blanton's whereabouts on the two nights before the bombing remain in dispute. Blanton has said that he broke a date with Jean Casey on Friday night to make posters at a Birmingham sign shop for use in an anti-integration rally. Waylene Vaughn Wise testified earlier in the trial that she and Blanton spent some time that night at a local motel.

William Jackson, a barber who said Blanton tried to recruit him into the Klan, testified during the trial that he was at the sign shop with Blanton and thought they were there on Saturday rather than Friday. Jackson, however, added that he couldn't be sure of the day.

The legal dispute over the tape, as well as another made by a former Klansman-turned-FBI informant of his conversations with Blanton, consumed much of yesterday's proceedings and delayed what prosecutors say are their final witnesses. The jurors, who are sequestered during the highly watched trial, will return to court today, when Jones expects to rest his case.

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