SOME bombing evidence doesn't mesh with '77 trial

Monday, May 7th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – There was an unintended side effect of the trial that resulted in last week's conviction of ex-Ku Klux Klansman Thomas Blanton Jr. in the 1963 church bombing that killed four black girls.

It raised questions about the only other conviction in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, the crime that galvanized the civil-rights movement.

The prosecution in the Blanton case acknowledged that a key witness in the 1977 trial of former Klansman Robert Chambliss had lied to investigators. Mr. Chambliss' lawyers weren't told about the lie, which could have damaged the witness's credibility. Testimony and evidence about the bomb also varied greatly in the two trials.

Charges in the case are still pending against another ex-Klansman, Bobby Frank Cherry, 71, of Mabank, Texas, who was indicted last year with Mr. Blanton. Mr. Cherry's trial was delayed indefinitely because of questions about his mental competency, and he may never be tried.

Mr. Chambliss was convicted of murder and died in prison in 1985, proclaiming his innocence until the end. Known around Birmingham as a vile racist even before the bombing, he has few, if any, defenders.

Former Attorney General Bill Baxley, who prosecuted Mr. Chambliss, said Friday he remains confident Mr. Chambliss was guilty. "More so than ever," he said.

Even Mr. Blanton's attorney, John Robbins, avoided direct criticism of the 1977 prosecution that led to his client's conviction.

"I know some questionable things came out during the course of this trial concerning that case, but I'm not here to defend Bob Chambliss," Mr. Robbins said in an interview.

"The jury said he did it," Mr. Robbins said. "I respect the jury's decision in that."

Evidence in Mr. Blanton's trial cast an unflattering light on some of the most important testimony used to tie Mr. Chambliss to the bombing:

• Prosecutors in the Blanton trial acknowledged that a star witness against Mr. Chambliss, niece Elizabeth Cobbs, was untruthful to investigators before she testified in 1977.

During that trial, she said Mr. Chambliss had made incriminating statements about the explosion. Mr. Chambliss' lawyers didn't know that Ms. Cobbs had once claimed – and later denied – that she saw Mr. Chambliss, Mr. Blanton and two other Klansmen in a car near the church around the time the bomb was supposedly planted.

Ms. Cobbs' untruths could have impeached her testimony, but laws at the time did not require prosecutors to divulge such evidence to the defense.

• Prosecutors in 1977 claimed the bomb was made of dynamite, linking the explosion to Mr. Chambliss at least symbolically because of his nickname: "Dynamite Bob."

But Charles Killion, a retired FBI bomb expert who was active in the original investigation, testified during Mr. Blanton's trial that investigators did not know what kind of explosive was used.

• At Mr. Chambliss' trial, prosecutors claimed the bomb was triggered by a device that included a fishing bobber found outside the church. The theory meshed with a statement Mr. Chambliss once made about using a bobber to make a bomb trigger called a "drip bucket."

At Mr. Blanton's trial, Mr. Killion acknowledged that the FBI never determined how the bomb was set off.

In a post-trial interview, Mr. Killion, who wasn't involved in the 1977 case, said he never before heard of a bobber being found outside the church or the drip bucket theory.

And no bobber was shown to jurors in 1977; an FBI agent testified that it had been lost.

Mr. Baxley and U.S. Attorney Doug Jones, who prosecuted Mr. Blanton, said the discrepancies did nothing to counter another vital piece of evidence against Mr. Chambliss: a witness's testimony that she saw Mr. Chambliss and Mr. Blanton outside the church the night before the blast.