|16th Street Baptist Church bombing|
|Part of the Civil Rights Movement|
The four girls killed in the bombing (Clockwise from top left, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair)
|Date||September 15, 1963
10:22 a.m. (UTC-5)
|Target||16th Street Baptist Church|
|Church bombing, terrorism, hate crime, mass murder|
|Perpetrators||Thomas Blanton (convicted)
Robert Chambliss (convicted)
Bobby Cherry (convicted)
Herman Cash (alleged)
The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing was an act of white supremacist terrorism which occurred at the African-American 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on Sunday, September 15, 1963, when four members of the Ku Klux Klan planted at least 15 sticks of dynamite attached to a timing device beneath the steps located on the east side of the church.
Although the FBI had concluded in 1965 that the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing had been committed by four known Ku Klux Klansmen and segregationists—Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr., Herman Frank Cash, Robert Edward Chambliss, and Bobby Frank Cherry—no prosecutions ensued until 1977, when Robert Chambliss was tried and convicted of the first degree murder of one of the victims, 11-year-old Carol Denise McNair. Thomas Blanton and Bobby Cherry were each convicted of four counts of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2001 and 2002 respectively, whereas Herman Cash, who died in 1994, was never charged with his alleged involvement in the bombing.
In the years leading to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, Birmingham had earned a national reputation as a tense, violent and racially segregated city, in which even tentative racial integration of any form was met with violent resistance. Dr. Martin Luther King described Birmingham as "probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States".
The city had no black police officers or firefighters, and few of the city's black residents were registered to vote. Bombings at black institutions were a regular occurrence: Birmingham had seen at least 21 separate explosions at black properties and churches in the eight years before 1963, although none of these explosions had resulted in fatalities. These attacks had earned the city the nickname "Bombingham".
The three-story 16th Street Baptist Church had become a rallying point for civil rights activities through the spring of 1963, and became the location where students who were arrested during the 1963 Birmingham campaign's Children's Crusade had been organized and trained by Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) Director of Direct Action, James Bevel. The church was also used as a meeting-place for other civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph David Abernathy, and Fred Shuttlesworth. Tensions further escalated when the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Congress on Racial Equality became involved in a campaign to register African-Americans to vote in Birmingham.
On May 2, more than 1,000 students, some reportedly as young as eight, opted to leave school and gather at the 16th Street Baptist Church. Demonstrators present were given instructions to march to downtown Birmingham and discuss with the mayor their concerns about racial segregation in Birmingham, then to integrate buildings and businesses currently segregated. Although this march was met with fierce resistance and criticism, and saw up to 600 arrests on the first day alone, the Birmingham campaign and its Children's Crusade continued until May 5. These demonstrations led to an agreement, on May 8, between the city's business leaders and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, to integrate public facilities, including schools, in the city within 90 days. (The first three schools in Birmingham to become integrated would do so on September 4.)
These demonstrations, and the concessions from city leaders to the majority of demonstrators' demands, were met with fierce resistance in Birmingham. In the weeks following the September 4 integration of public schools, three further bombs had been detonated in Birmingham. Other acts of violence followed the settlement, and several staunch Ku Klux Klansmen were known to have expressed frustration at what they saw as a lack of effective resistance to integration.
The 16th Street Baptist Church was a known and popular rallying point for civil rights activists, and had become an obvious target.
In the early morning of Sunday, September 15, 1963, four members of the United Klans of America: Thomas Edwin Blanton, Jr.; Herman Frank Cash; Robert Edward Chambliss; and Bobby Frank Cherry, planted a minimum of 15 sticks of dynamite with a time delay under the steps of the church, close to the basement.
At approximately 10:22 a.m., an anonymous man phoned the 16th Street Baptist Church. The call was answered by the acting Sunday School secretary: a 14-year-old girl named Carolyn Maull. To Maull, the anonymous caller simply said the words, "Three minutes", before terminating the call. Less than one minute later, the bomb exploded as five children were present within the basement assembly, changing into their choir robes in preparation for a sermon entitled "A Love That Forgives". According to one survivor, the explosion shook the entire building and propelled the girls' bodies through the air "like rag dolls".
The explosion blew a hole measuring seven feet in diameter in the church's rear wall, and a crater five feet wide and two feet deep in the ladies' basement lounge, destroying the rear steps to the church and blowing one passing motorist out of his car. Several other cars parked near the site of the blast were destroyed, and windows of properties located more than two blocks from the church were also damaged. All but one of the church's stained-glass windows were destroyed in the explosion. The sole stained-glass window largely undamaged in the explosion depicted Christ leading a group of young children.
Hundreds of individuals, some of them lightly wounded, converged on the church to search the debris for survivors as police erected barricades around the church and several outraged men scuffled with police. An estimated 2,000 black people, many of them hysterical, converged on the scene in the hours following the explosion as the church's pastor, the Reverend John Cross, Jr., attempted to placate the crowd by loudly reciting the 23rd Psalm through a bullhorn. One individual who converged on the scene to help search for survivors, Charles Vann, later recollected that he had observed a solitary white man whom he recognized as Robert Edward Chambliss (a known member of the Ku Klux Klan) standing alone and motionless at a barricade. According to Vann's later testimony, Chambliss was standing "looking down toward the church, like a firebug watching his fire".
Four girls, Addie Mae Collins (age 14), Carol Denise McNair (age 11), Carole Robertson (age 14), and Cynthia Wesley (age 14), were killed in the attack. The explosion was so intense that one of the girls' bodies was decapitated and so badly mutilated in the explosion that her body could only be identified through her clothing and a ring, whereas another victim had been killed by a piece of mortar embedded in her skull. All four girls were pronounced dead on arrival at the Hillman Emergency Clinic. The then-pastor of the church, the Reverend John Cross, would recollect in 2001 that the girls' bodies were subsequently found "stacked on top of each other, clung together".
More than 20 additional people were injured in the explosion, one of whom was Addie Mae's younger sister, 12-year-old Sarah Collins, who had 21 pieces of glass embedded in her face and was blinded in one eye. In her later recollections of the bombing, Collins would recall that in the moments immediately before the explosion, she had observed her sister, Addie, tying her dress sash. Another sister of Addie Mae Collins, 16-year-old Junie Collins, would later recall that shortly before the explosion, she had been sitting in the basement of the church reading the Bible and had observed Addie Mae Collins tying the dress sash of Carol Denise McNair before she had herself returned upstairs to the ground floor of the church.
As violence escalated in Birmingham in the hours following the bombing, police urged parents of black and white youths to keep their children indoors, as the Governor of Alabama, George Wallace, ordered an additional 300 state police to assist in quelling unrest. Birmingham City Council convened an emergency meeting to propose safety measures for the city, although proposals for a curfew were rejected. Within 24 hours of the bombing, a minimum of five businesses and properties had been firebombed and numerous cars—most of which were driven by whites—had been stoned by rioting youths.
In response to the church bombing, described by the Mayor of Birmingham, Albert Boutwell, as "just sickening", the Attorney General dispatched 25 FBI agents, including explosives experts, to Birmingham to conduct a thorough forensic investigation.
Although reports of the bombing and the loss of four children's lives were glorified by white supremacists, who in many instances chose to celebrate the loss as "four less niggers", as news of the church bombing and the fact that four young girls had been killed in the explosion reached the national and international press, many felt that they had not taken the civil rights struggle seriously enough. The day following the bombing, a young white lawyer named Charles Morgan Jr. addressed a meeting of businessmen, condemning the acquiescence of white people in Birmingham towards the oppression of blacks. In this speech, Morgan addressed his audience with a speech in which he lamented: "Who did it [the bombing]? We all did it! The 'who' is every little individual who talks about the 'niggers' and spreads the seeds of his hate to his neighbor and his son ... What's it like living in Birmingham? No one ever really has known and no one will until this city becomes part of the United States." A Milwaukee Sentinel editorial opined, "For the rest of the nation, the Birmingham church bombing should serve to goad the conscience. The deaths... in a sense, are on the hands of each of us."
Two more black youths, Johnny Robinson and Virgil Ware, were shot to death in Birmingham within seven hours of the Sunday morning bombing. Robinson, aged 16, was shot in the back by a policeman as he fled down an alley, after ignoring police orders to halt. The police were reportedly responding to black youths throwing rocks at cars driven by white people. Robinson died before reaching the hospital. Ware, aged 13, was shot in the cheek and chest with a revolver in a residential suburb 15 miles north of the city. A 16-year-old white youth named Larry Sims fired the gun (given to him by another youth named Michael Farley) at Ware, who was sitting on the handlebars of a bicycle ridden by his brother. Sims and Farley had been riding home from an anti-integration rally which had denounced the church bombing. When he spotted Ware and his brother, Sims fired twice, reportedly with his eyes closed. (Sims and Farley were later convicted of second-degree manslaughter, although the judge suspended their sentences and imposed two years' probation upon each youth.)
Some civil rights activists blamed George Wallace, the Governor of Alabama and an outspoken segregationist, for creating the climate that had led to the killings. One week before the bombing, Wallace granted an interview with a The New York Times journalist in which he said he believed Alabama needed a "few first-class funerals" to stop racial integration.
The city of Birmingham initially offered a $52,000 reward for the arrest of the bombers. Governor George Wallace himself offered an additional $5,000 on behalf of the state of Alabama. Although this donation was accepted, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is known to have informed Wallace via telegram of his belief that "the blood of four little children ... is on your hands. Your irresponsible and misguided actions have created in Birmingham and Alabama the atmosphere that has induced continued violence and now murder."
Carole Rosamond Robertson was laid to rest in a private family funeral held on September 17, 1963. Reportedly, Carole's mother, Alpha, had expressly requested her daughter be buried separately from the other victims due to her distress at a remark Martin Luther King had made in which he (King) said the mindset that had allowed the murder of the four girls was the "apathy and complacency" of black people in Alabama.
The service for Carole Rosamond Robertson was held at St. John's African Methodist Episcopal Church. In attendance were 1,600 people. At this service, the Reverend C. E. Thomas addressed the congregation, informing them: "The greatest tribute you can pay to Carole is to be calm, be lovely, be kind, be innocent." Carole Robertson was buried in a blue casket at Shadow Lawn Cemetery.
On September 18, the funeral of the three other girls killed in the bombing was held at the Sixth Avenue Baptist Church. Although no city officials attended this service, present at the girls' funerals were an estimated 800 clergymen of all races. Also present was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In a speech conducted before the burial of the girls, Dr. King addressed an estimated 3,300 mourners—including numerous white people—with a speech which included: "This tragic day may cause the white side to come to terms with its conscience. In spite of the darkness of this hour, we must not become bitter ... We must not lose faith in our white brothers. Life is hard. At times as hard as crucible steel, but, today, you do not walk alone."
As the girls' coffins were led to their graves, Dr. King ordered that those present remain solemn and forbid any singing, shouting or demonstrations. These instructions were relayed to the crowd present by a single youth with a bullhorn. At the time of the funerals, two of those critically injured in the bombing were still hospitalized, as was a 16-year-old white teenager named Dennis Robertson, who had been hit on the head with a brick thrown by a black youth as Robertson cycled home from his job.
Initially, investigators theorized that a bomb thrown from a passing car had caused the explosion at the 16th Street Baptist church; however, by September 20, the FBI was able to confirm that the explosion had been caused by a device which had been purposely planted beneath the steps to the church, close to the women's lounge, where a section of wire and remnants of red plastic which could have been part of a timing device were discovered. (The plastic remnants were later lost by investigators.)
Within days of the bombing, investigators began to focus their attention upon a Ku Klux Klan splinter group known as the "Cahaba Boys". The Cahaba Boys had formed earlier in 1963 due to a mutual feeling the Ku Klux Klan was becoming restrained and impotent in response to concessions granted to blacks aimed at ending racial segregation, and had previously been linked to several bomb attacks at black-owned businesses and the homes of black community leaders throughout the spring and summer of 1963. Although the Cahaba Boys consisted of less than 30 active members, this splinter group included Thomas Blanton, Jr., Herman Cash, Robert Chambliss, and Bobby Cherry.
Investigators also gathered numerous witness statements attesting to a group of white men in a turquoise 1957 Chevrolet who had been seen near the church in the early hours of the morning of September 15. These witness statements specifically indicated that a white man had exited the car and walked towards the steps of the church. (The physical description of the individual who had exited the car varied, and could have matched either Bobby Cherry or Robert Chambliss.)
Chambliss was questioned by the FBI on September 26. On September 29, Chambliss was indicted solely upon charges of illegally purchasing and transporting dynamite on September 4, 1963. He and two acquaintances, John Hall and Charles Cagle, were each convicted upon a charge of illegally possessing and transporting dynamite on October 8—each receiving a $100 fine and a suspended 180-day jail sentence. At the time, no federal charges were filed against Chambliss or any of his fellow conspirators in relation to the bombing.
The FBI did encounter difficulties in their initial investigation into the bombing. One later report stated: "By 1965, we had [four] serious suspects—namely Thomas Blanton, Jr., Herman Frank Cash, Robert Chambliss, and Bobby Frank Cherry, all Klan members—but witnesses were reluctant to talk and physical evidence was lacking. Also, at that time, information from our surveillance was not admissible in court. As a result, no federal charges were filed in the '60s."
On May 13, 1965, local investigators and the FBI formally named Blanton, Cash, Chambliss, and Cherry as the perpetrators of the bombing, with Robert Chambliss the likely ringleader of the four. This information was relayed to the Director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover; however, no prosecutions of the four suspects ensued, reportedly on the basis of mistrust between local and federal investigators. Later the same year, J. Edgar Hoover formally blocked any impending prosecutions against the suspects, and refused to disclose any evidence his agents had obtained with state or federal prosecutors.
In 1968, the FBI formally closed their investigation into the bombing without filing charges against any of their named suspects. The files were sealed by order of J. Edgar Hoover.
The Birmingham campaign, the March on Washington, the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist church, and the later assassination of John F. Kennedy—an ardent supporter of the civil rights cause who had proposed a Civil Rights Act of 1963 on national television—increased worldwide awareness of and sympathy towards the civil rights cause.
On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed into effect the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In attendance were various leaders of the Civil Rights Movement including Martin Luther King, Jr. This resulting legislation outlawed any discrimination based on race, color, religion, gender, or national origin; thus ensuring full, equal rights of African-Americans before the law.
Officially, the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing remained unsolved until William Baxley was elected Attorney General of Alabama in January 1971. Baxley had been a student at the University of Alabama when he heard about the bombing in 1963, and later recollected: "I wanted to do something, but I didn't know what."
Within one week of being sworn into office, Baxley had researched original police files into the bombing, discovering that most of the original police documents were lackluster and inefficient. Nonetheless, Baxley formally reopened the case into the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1971. Baxley was able to corroborate with and build trust with key witnesses, some of whom had been reluctant to testify in the first trial. Other witnesses obtained were able to identify Chambliss as the individual who had placed the bomb beneath the church. Baxley also gathered evidence proving Chambliss had purchased dynamite from a store in Jefferson County less than two weeks before the bomb was planted, upon the pretext the dynamite was to be used to clear land the Ku Klux Klan had purchased near Highway 101. In addition, he also obtained testimony from witnesses who were able to place Robert Chambliss and his car in the vicinity of the church on the day of the bombing. This testimony and evidence was used to formally construct a case against Robert Chambliss.
Baxley then requested access to the original FBI files on the case and discovered that evidence accumulated by the FBI against the named suspects between 1963 and 1965 had not been revealed to the prosecutors in Birmingham. Although he met with initial resistance from the FBI, Baxley was formally presented with some of the evidence which had been compiled by the FBI in 1976, after he publicly threatened to expose the Department of Justice for withholding evidence which could result in the prosecution of the perpetrators of the bombing.
On November 14, 1977, Robert Chambliss, then aged 73, stood trial in Birmingham's Jefferson County Courthouse. Chambliss was initially indicted on September 24, 1977, charged with four counts of murder relating to each victim of the 1963 church bombing; however, at an initial court hearing scheduled October 18, Judge Wallace Gibson ruled that the defendant would be tried upon one count of murder—that of Carol Denise McNair—and that the remaining three counts of murder would remain, but that he would not be charged in relation to these three deaths.
Chambliss pleaded not guilty to the charges, insisting that although he had indeed purchased a case of dynamite less than two weeks before the bombing, he had given the dynamite to a known Klan member named Gary Thomas Rowe, Jr.
To discredit Chambliss's claims that Rowe had committed the bombing, prosecuting attorney William Baxley introduced two law enforcement officers to testify as to Chambliss's inconsistent claims of innocence. The first of these witnesses was a retired Birmingham police officer named Tom Cook, who testified on November 15 as to a conversation he had had with Chambliss in 1975. Cook testified that Chambliss had acknowledged his guilt regarding his 1963 arrest for possession of dynamite, but that he (Chambliss) was insistent he had given the dynamite to Rowe prior to the bombing. Following the testimony of Tom Cook, Baxley then introduced a police sergeant named Ernie Cantrell, who testified that Chambliss had visited his headquarters in 1976, where he had attempted to affix the blame for the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing upon an altogether different member of the Ku Klux Klan. Cantrell also stated that Chambliss had boasted of his knowledge of how to construct a "drip-method bomb" using a fishing float and leaking bucket of water. (Upon cross examination by defense attorney Art Hanes, Jr., Cantrell did concede that Chambliss had emphatically denied actually bombing the church.)
One of the key witnesses to testify on behalf of the prosecution was the Reverend Elizabeth Cobbs—Chambliss's own niece. Reverend Cobbs stated that her uncle had repeatedly informed her he had been engaged in what he referred to as a "one-man battle" against blacks since the 1940s. Moreover, Cobbs testified on November 16 that, on the day before the bombing, Chambliss had informed her he had in his possession enough dynamite to "flatten half of Birmingham". Cobbs also testified that, approximately one week after the bombing, she had observed Chambliss watching a news article relating to the four girls killed in the bombing. According to Cobbs, Chambliss had informed her: "It [the bomb] wasn't meant to hurt anybody ... it didn't go off when it was supposed to." Another witness to testify was a man named William Jackson, who testified as to his joining the Ku Klux Klan in 1963 and his becoming acquainted with Chambliss shortly thereafter. Jackson testified that Chambliss had expressed frustration as to his (Chambliss's) belief that the Klan was "dragging its feet" on the issue of racial integration, and of his eagerness to form a more virulent splinter group.
In his closing argument before the jury on November 17, Baxley acknowledged that Chambliss was not the sole perpetrator in the bombing, before informing the jury of his regret that the state was unable to request the death penalty in this case, owing to the fact the death penalty in Alabama which had been in effect in 1963 had been repealed, and that the current death penalty within the state was only applicable in relation to crimes committed after its reinstatement. Noting that the day of the closing argument fell upon what would have been Carol Denise McNair's 26th birthday, and that she would have likely been a mother by this date, Baxley harked towards the testimony earlier delivered by Carol's father, Chris McNair, and requested that the jury return a verdict of guilty.
In his rebuttal closing argument, defense attorney Art Hanes Jr. attacked the evidence presented by the prosecution as being purely circumstantial, adding that similar circumstantial evidence had earlier seen Chambliss acquitted of the church bombing in 1963. Hanes also harked towards the testimony of several of the 12 witnesses the defense had called to testify as to Chambliss's whereabouts on the day of the bombing, including a policeman and a neighbor who had each testified as to Chambliss being at the home of a man named Clarence Dill on the day of the bombing.
Following the closing arguments, the jury retired to begin their deliberations, which lasted for over six hours and continued into the following day. On November 18, 1977, Robert Chambliss was found guilty of the murder of Carol Denise McNair and sentenced to life imprisonment for her murder. At his sentencing, Chambliss stood before the judge and stated: "Judge, your honor, all I can say is God knows I have never killed anybody, never have bombed anything in my life ... I didn't bomb that church."
The same afternoon Chambliss was convicted, William Baxley issued a subpoena to Thomas Blanton to appear in court in relation to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. Although Baxley knew he had insufficient evidence to charge Blanton at this stage, this subpoena was issued in the hope of frightening Blanton into confessing his involvement and negotiating a deal to turn state evidence against his co-conspirators. Blanton, however, simply hired a lawyer and refused to answer any questions.
Chambliss did appeal his conviction, citing that much of the evidence presented at his trial—including testimony relating to his activities within the Ku Klux Klan—was circumstantial; that the 14-year delay between the crime and his eventual trial violated his constitutional right to a speedy trial; and that this delay was a tactic used by the prosecution to gain an advantage over his own defense attorneys. This appeal was dismissed on May 22, 1979.
Robert Chambliss died in the Lloyd Noland Hospital and Health Center on October 29, 1985, at the age of 81. In the years since his incarceration, Chambliss had been confined to a solitary cell to protect him from attacks by fellow inmates. He had repeatedly proclaimed his innocence—repeatedly insisting Gary Thomas Rowe, Jr. was the actual perpetrator.
Ten years after Chambliss had died, the FBI discreetly reopened their investigation into the bombing, resulting in the unsealing of 9,000 pieces of evidence previously gathered by the FBI in the 1960s (many of these documents relating to the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing had been unavailable to William Baxley in the 1970s). In May 2000, the FBI publicly announced their findings that the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing had been committed by four members of the Ku Klux Klan splinter group known as the Cahaba Boys. The four individuals named in the FBI report were Blanton, Cash, Chambliss, and Cherry. At the time of the announcement, Herman Cash was deceased; however, Thomas Blanton and Bobby Cherry were still alive. Both were arrested.
On May 16, 2000, a grand jury in Alabama indicted Thomas Edwin Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry with eight counts each of first-degree murder in relation to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. Both named individuals were charged with four counts of first-degree murder, and four counts of universal malice. The following day, both men surrendered to police.
The prosecution had originally intended to try both defendants together; however, the trial of Bobby Cherry was delayed due to the findings of a court-ordered psychiatric evaluation, which had concluded that vascular dementia had impaired his mind, therefore making Cherry mentally incompetent to stand trial or assist in his own defense.
On April 10, 2001, Judge James Garrett indefinitely postponed Cherry's trial, pending further medical analysis. In January 2002, Judge Garrett ruled Cherry mentally competent to stand trial and set an initial trial date for April 29.
Thomas Edwin Blanton, Jr. was brought to trial in Birmingham, Alabama before Judge James Garrett on April 24, 2001. Blanton pleaded not guilty to the charges, and opted not to testify on his own behalf throughout the trial.
In his opening statement to the jurors, defense attorney John Robbins acknowledged his client's affiliation with the Ku Klux Klan and his views on racial segregation, but warned the jury: "Just because you don't like him, that doesn't make him responsible for the bombing."
The prosecution called a total of seven witnesses to testify in their case against Blanton, including relatives of the victims, the former reverend of the 16th Street Baptist Church, John Cross, an FBI agent named William Fleming, and a former Klansman who became a paid FBI informant, Mitchell Burns. Burns had secretly recorded several conversations with Blanton in which he (Blanton) had gloated when talking about the bombing, and had boasted the police would not catch him when he bombed another church.
The most crucial piece of evidence presented at Blanton's trial was an audio recording secretly taped by the FBI in June, 1964, in which Blanton was recorded discussing his involvement in the bombing with his wife, who can be heard accusing her husband of conducting an affair with a woman named Waylene Vaughn two nights before the bombing. Although sections of the recording—presented in evidence on April 27—are unintelligible, Blanton can twice be heard mentioning the phrase "plan a bomb" or "plan the bomb". Most crucially, Blanton can also be heard describing his not being with Miss Vaughn, but at a meeting with other Ku Klux Klansmen on a bridge above the Cahaba River two nights before the bombing, adding: "You've got to have a meeting to plan a bomb."
In addition to calling attention to flaws in the prosecution's case, the defense was able to expose inconsistencies in the memories of some prosecution witnesses who had testified. Blanton's attorneys also criticized the validity and quality of the 16 tape recordings introduced as evidence, arguing that the prosecution had deliberately spliced the sections of the audio recording secretly obtained within Blanton's kitchen, reducing the entirety of the tape by 26 minutes, and that the sections presented were of a poor audio quality, requiring the prosecution to present questionable text transcripts to the jury. In reference to the recordings made as Blanton conversed with Burns, Robbins emphasized that Burns had earlier testified that Blanton had never expressly stated he had made or planted the bomb, and portrayed the audio tapes introduced into evidence as the statements of "two rednecks driving around, drinking" and making false, ego-inflating claims to one-another.
The trial lasted for one week, and saw seven witnesses testify on behalf of the prosecution, as opposed to just two witnesses for the defense. One of the defense witnesses was a retired chef named Eddie Mauldin, who was called to testify in an effort to discredit prosecution witnesses' statements that they had seen Blanton in the vicinity of the church prior to the bombing. Mauldin testified on April 30 that he had observed two men in a Rambler station wagon adorned with a confederate flag repeatedly drive past the church immediately before the blast, and that, seconds after the bomb had exploded, the car had "burned rubber" as it drove away. (Thomas Blanton had owned a Chevrolet in 1963, and neither Chambliss, Cash nor Cherry had owned such a vehicle.)
Both counsels delivered their closing arguments before the jury on May 1. In his closing argument, prosecuting attorney Doug Jones first pointed to the fact that the trial was conducted 38 years after the bombing made the trial no less important, adding: "It's never too late for the truth to be told ... It's never too late for a man to be held accountable for his crimes." Jones then recited Blanton's extensive history with the Ku Klux Klan, before referring to the audio recordings presented earlier in the trial. Jones then recited the most damning statements Blanton had made in these recordings, before pointing at Blanton and stating: "That is a confession out of this man's mouth."
Defense attorney John Robbins reminded the jury in his closing argument that his client was an admitted segregationist and a "loudmouth", but that that was all that could be proven, and that his past was not the evidence upon which they should return their verdicts. Stressing that Blanton should not be judged for his beliefs, Robbins again vehemently criticized the validity and poor quality of the audio recordings presented, and the selectivity of the sections which had been introduced into evidence. Robbins also discredited the testimony of FBI agent William Fleming, who had earlier testified as to a government witness claiming he had seen Blanton in the vicinity of the church shortly before the bombing.
The jury deliberated for just two and a half hours before returning with a verdict finding Thomas Edwin Blanton guilty of four counts of first-degree murder. When asked by the judge whether he had anything to say before sentence was imposed, Blanton simply said: "I guess the Lord will settle it on Judgment Day."
Blanton was sentenced to serve a sentence of life imprisonment, and remains the sole perpetrator of the 1963 Birmingham Church bombing still alive. His first parole hearing was held on August 3, 2016. Relatives of the slain girls, prosecutor Doug Jones, Alabama Chief Deputy Attorney General Alice Martin, and Jefferson County district attorney Brandon Falls each spoke at the hearing to oppose Blanton's parole, with Martin addressing the hearing by stating: "The cold blooded callousness of this hate crime has not diminished by the passage of time." The Board of Pardons and Paroles debated for less than 90 seconds before opting to deny parole to Blanton. He is next eligible for parole in 2021.
Bobby Frank Cherry was tried in Birmingham, Alabama before Judge James Garrett, on May 6, 2002. Cherry also pleaded not guilty to the charges, and opted not to testify on his own behalf throughout the trial.
In his opening statement for the prosecution, Don Cochran outlined that he expected the evidence to be presented to show that Cherry had participated in a conspiracy to commit the bombing and conceal evidence linking him to the crime, and that he had later gloated over the deaths of the victims. Cochran also added that although the evidence to be presented would not conclusively show that Cherry had actually planted or ignited the bomb, the combined evidence would illustrate that he had aided and abetted in the commission of the act.
Cherry's defense attorney, Mickey Johnson, protested his client's innocence, citing that much of the evidence presented was circumstantial, and that Cherry had initially been linked to the bombing by the FBI via an informant who had claimed, fifteen months after the bombing, that she had seen Cherry place the bomb at the church shortly before the bombing. Johnson then warned the jurors they would have to draw a distinction between evidence and proof.
Following the opening statements, the prosecution began presenting witnesses. Crucial testimony at Cherry's trial was delivered by his former wife, Willadean Brogdon, whom Cherry had married in 1970. Brogdon testified on May 16 that Cherry had boasted to her that he had been the individual who had planted the bomb beneath the steps to the church, then returned hours later to light the fuse upon the dynamite. Brogdon also testified that Cherry had informed her of his regret that children had died in the bombing, before adding of his contentment that they would never reproduce. Although the credibility of Brogdon's testimony was called into dispute at the trial, forensic experts did concede that, although her account of the planting of the bombing differed from that which had been discussed in the previous perpetrators' trials, Brogdon's recollection of Cherry's account of the planting and subsequent lighting of the bomb could explain why no conclusive remnants of a timing device were subsequently discovered after the bombing. (A fishing float attached to a section of wire which may have been part of a timing device was found 20 feet from the explosion crater following the bombing, although one of several vehicles heavily damaged in the explosion was found to have carried fishing tackle.)
Another witness to testify on behalf of the prosecution was Barbara Ann Cross, the daughter of the Reverend John Cross, who was aged 13 in 1963. Cross had been slightly wounded in the bombing, and had attended the same Sunday School class as the four victims on the day of the bombing. On May 15, Cross testified that prior to the explosion, she and the four girls killed had each attended a Youth Day Sunday School lesson in which the theme taught was how to react to a physical injustice. Cross testified that each girl present had been taught to contemplate how Jesus would react to affliction or injustice, with the message taught being to consider, "What Would Jesus Do?" Cross testified that she would herself have accompanied her friends into the basement lounge to change into robes for the forthcoming sermon, but she had been given an assignment. Shortly thereafter, she had heard "the most horrible noise", before being struck on the head by debris.
Throughout the trial, Cherry's defense attorney, Mickey Johnson, repeatedly observed that many of the prosecution's witnesses were either circumstantial or "inherently unreliable". Many of the same audio tapes presented in Blanton's trial were also introduced into evidence in the trial of Bobby Cherry. A key point contested as to the validity of the audio tapes being introduced into evidence, outside the hearing of the jury, was the fact that Cherry had no grounds to contest the introduction of the tapes into evidence, as, under the Fourth Amendment, neither his home or property had been subject to discreet recording by the FBI. This was disputed by Don Cochran, who argued that Alabama law allows conspiracies to conceal evidence to be proven by both inference and circumstantial evidence. In spite of a rebuttal argument by the defense, Judge Garrett ruled that some sections were too prejudicial, but also that portions of some audio recordings could be introduced as evidence. Through these rulings, Mitchell Burns was also called to testify on behalf of the prosecution, although his testimony was restricted to the areas of the recordings permitted into evidence.
On May 21, 2002, both prosecution and defense attorneys delivered their closing arguments to the jury. In his closing argument for the prosecution, Don Cochran gave attention to the fact the victims' "Youth Sunday [sermon] never happened ... because it was destroyed by this defendant's hate." Cochran then outlined Cherry's extensive record of racial violence dating back to the 1950s, also noting his knowledge of constructing and installing bombs obtained in his days as a Marine demolition expert. Cochran also reminded the jury of a secretly-obtained FBI recording which had earlier been introduced into evidence in which Cherry had informed his first wife, Jean, that he and other Klansmen had constructed the bomb within the premises of a business the Friday before the bombing, and that Cherry had signed an affidavit in the presence of the FBI on October 9, 1963, confirming that he, Chambliss and Blanton were at these premises on this date.
In the closing argument for the defense, attorney Mickey Johnson argued that Cherry had nothing to do with the bombing, and reminded the jurors that his client was not on trial for his beliefs, stating: "It seems like more time has been spent here throwing around the n-word than proving what happened in September 1963." Johnson then reiterated that there was no hard evidence linking Cherry to the bombing, but only evidence attesting to his racist beliefs dating from that era, and that the family members who had testified against him were all estranged and therefore unreliable witnesses. Johnson then urged the jury not to convict his client via guilt by association.
Following these closing arguments, the jury retired to consider their verdicts. These deliberations continued until the following day.
On the afternoon of May 22, after deliberating for almost seven hours, the forewoman of the jury announced they had reached their verdicts: Bobby Frank Cherry was convicted of four counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. Cherry remained stoic as the sentence was read aloud, although relatives of the four victims openly wept in relief.
When asked by the judge whether he had anything to say before sentence was imposed, Cherry motioned to the prosecutors and stated: "This whole bunch lied all the way through this thing [the trial]. I told the truth. I don't know why I'm going to jail for nothing. I haven't done anything!"
Following the convictions of Blanton and Cherry, Alabama's former Attorney General, William Baxley, expressed his frustration at his never being informed of the existence of these audio recordings before their emergence at the 2001 and 2002 trials. Baxley acknowledged that the social circumstances in 1960s Alabama would likely have leaned in favor of both defendants even with the FBI recordings presented in evidence, but added that he could have prosecuted Thomas Blanton—and likely Bobby Cherry—in 1977, had he been granted access to the secretly recorded tapes of Blanton conversing with his wife and with FBI informant Mitchell Burns. (A 1980 Justice Department report had concluded that J. Edgar Hoover had actually blocked prosecution of the four suspects of the bombing in 1965, and had officially closed the investigation in 1968.)
Although both Blanton and Cherry emphatically denied their involvement in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, until his death in 1985, Robert Chambliss repeatedly insisted that the bombing had been committed by Gary Thomas Rowe, Jr. Rowe had been encouraged to join the Klan by acquaintances in 1960 before becoming a paid FBI informant just two months after the bombing. In this role, Rowe acted as an agent provocateur between 1961 and 1965. Although informative, Rowe was known to actively participate in violence against blacks and civil rights activists. By Rowe's own later admission, in his role as an FBI informant, he had shot and killed an unidentified black man and had been an accessory to the murder of Viola Liuzzo.
Investigative records show that Rowe had twice failed polygraph tests when questioned as to his possible involvement in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing and two separate, non-fatal explosions. These polygraph results had convinced some FBI agents of Rowe's culpability in the bombing. Prosecutors at Chambliss's 1977 trial had initially intended to call Rowe as a witness; however, William Baxley had opted not to call Rowe as a witness after being informed of the results of these polygraph tests.
Although never formally named as one of the conspirators by the FBI, Rowe's record of deception on the polygraph tests leaves open the possibility that Chambliss's claims may have held a degree of truth. Nonetheless, a 1979 investigation cleared Rowe of any involvement in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing.
|They forever changed the face of this state and the history of this state. Their deaths made all of us focus upon the ugliness of those who would punish people because of the color of their skin.|
|—State Senator Roger Bedford at the unveiling of a state historic marker to the victims. September 15, 1990|
I remembered the bombing of that Sunday School at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963. I did not see it happen, but I heard it happen and I felt it happen, just a few blocks away at my father's church. It is a sound that I will never forget, that will forever reverberate in my ears. That bomb took the lives of four young girls, including my friend and playmate [Carol] Denise McNair. The crime was calculated, not random. It was meant to suck the hope out of young lives, bury their aspirations, and ensure that old fears would be propelled forward into the next generation.
The 2013 film based on the best-selling novel, The Watsons Go to Birmingham, includes scenes depicting events that took place in Birmingham 1963 including the church bombing.
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