- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 18, 2000

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. Two longtime suspects surrendered yesterday to face murder charges in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four black girls and helped galvanize the civil rights movement.

Thomas E. Blanton Jr. surrendered about 7:30 a.m., said his attorney, David Luker. Shortly before noon, Bobby Frank Cherry also arrived to be booked. Both are former members of the Ku Klux Klan.

U.S. Attorney Doug Jones, who will handle the murder prosecution in state court, said both were charged with eight counts of murder two counts covering each of the four girls who died. Four counts were for intentional murder and the others involved "universal malice" because the bomb was placed where it could have killed any number of people.

Mr. Jones declined to comment on the evidence or why the case was being brought now, 37 years after the explosion at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.

He added that the evidence lent itself better to state murder charges than to any federal charges. If convicted, the men face a maximum sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole.

Lawyers for Mr. Cherry and Mr. Blanton said their clients deny wrongdoing. Mr. Cherry's attorney, Mickey Johnson, also said his client was in ill health.

"He wants the world to know his story, and he thinks he'll be vindicated," said Mr. Johnson.

No dates for hearings were set. The two men were being held without bond at least until their attorneys could request a bond hearing.

Mr. Blanton, in his early 60s, of Birmingham, and Mr. Cherry, 69, of Mabank, Texas, are the only two living suspects in the bombing, one of the most shocking racial crimes of the civil rights era.

An investigation in the 1970s resulted in the murder conviction of Robert Edward Chambliss, who died in prison in 1985 while serving a life term. A fourth suspect, Herman Cash, is dead.

In a book on the bombing, Pete Smith, a relative of Chambliss', charges that Mr. Blanton drove the getaway car. Over the past year, estranged family members of Mr. Cherry's have said publicly that he talked of helping plant the dynamite.

On Tuesday, Mr. Cherry's 47-year-old son, Thomas Frank Cherry, appeared before the special Jefferson County grand jury but said he couldn't discuss his appearance.

"The less I know, the better off I am," he said, adding that he hasn't spoken to his father in years.

Church members were gathered for Sunday services on Sept. 15, 1963, when a dynamite bomb planted outside demolished a wall. Killed were Denise McNair, 11, and three 14-year-olds Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Addie Mae Collins. The girls were in a basement restroom preparing for a special youth program.

Many whites became more vocal in their opposition to segregation after the explosion, which came just months after police used dogs and fire hoses to confront black marchers led by Martin Luther King.

The Rev. Christopher Hamlin, pastor of the church since 1990, said there is a "strong sense of some beginning of a conclusion" to the bombing. "The city has come a long way in race relations" since 1963, he said.

Stanley Wilson, 39, a black man who works for a staffing services company, said it was unfair that whoever bombed the church had remained free for decades. "They should have taken care of this a long time ago," he said.

But a white resident, Stan Leo, who was 16 when the church was bombed, questioned the point of pursuing the case.

"I'm sorry it all happened," he said, "but it needs to be buried and put aside and let the city go on. Why keep bringing up the past?"

The initial federal investigation into the bombing resulted in no charges, though the FBI named the four Ku Klux Klansmen as suspects.

After the probe that led to Mr. Chambliss' conviction, the case was reopened in 1980 and 1988, without additional charges. It was reopened yet again in 1997.

"We received new information and are pursuing it in every way possible," Attorney General Janet Reno said at the time.

There has been no explanation why the case was moved from federal authorities to the county grand jury. On Monday, as the county grand jury met, Mr. Jones and an FBI agent mingled with county prosecutors.

The bombing is the subject of film director Spike Lee's Oscar-nominated 1997 documentary, "4 Little Girls."

Other high-profile racial killings of the 1960s have been reopened in recent years. In 1991, charges were filed in the 1963 assassination in Jackson, Miss., of NAACP organizer Medgar Evers. Byron de la Beckwith was convicted of that murder in 1994.

Around the same time, authorities found new evidence in the 1966 firebomb death of Mississippi civil rights activist Vernon Dahmer. In August 1998, former Ku Klux Klan leader Samuel H. Bowers, 73, was convicted of murder and arson.

The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, a leader of the Birmingham demonstrations in the 1960s and now a pastor in Cincinnati, said the charges should have been brought long ago.

"The FBI, they knew back then what they know now," he said.

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