Church bombing trial verdict depends on how jurors hear old tapes

Saturday, April 28th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) _ The case against a former Ku Klux Klansman charged in a 1963 church bombing that killed four girls could come down to what jurors believe they hear on tape recordings that are more than 35 years old.

On Saturday, the jury was scheduled to hear excerpts from tapes secretly recorded while Thomas Blanton Jr., now 62, was riding around Birmingham in a 1956 Chevy with fellow Klansman Mitchell Burns.

Burns had been recruited by the FBI as a paid informant to get close to Blanton after the bombing and had a tape recorder hidden in the trunk of his car. When they were in bars or elsewhere, he made detailed notes of their conversations.

At one point, Burns claims, Blanton said: ``They ain't gonna catch me when I bomb my next church.''

But he also has said Blanton never admitted to the bombing. When the FBI finally had him ask Blanton point-blank about it, he said Blanton turned the question back on him, asking: ``Mitch, did you bomb that church?''

The FBI had also hidden a listening device in Blanton's kitchen after the bombing. On Friday, the jury heard a murky tape made there in which Blanton can be heard muttering the phrase ``plan a bomb'' and complaining about FBI agents.

``Every breath they blurt is a lie,'' Blanton was heard telling his then-wife Carolyn Jeanne Barnes.

The Sept. 15, 1963, explosion outside the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church killed Denise McNair, 11, and Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, all 14, as the girls prepared for services. It was one of the most notorious crimes of the civil rights era.

Circuit Judge James Garrett ruled Friday that jurors would get to hear about 15 of the 20 tapes of Blanton and Burns that prosecutors had sought to introduce.

Defense attorney John Robbins claims the tapes are unintelligible and don't reflect the context of the conversations, including the ones heard Friday.

``You've all heard it and each one of you has come up with something different,'' Robbins said after the tapes were replayed for the news media.

On the tape played Friday, Blanton can be heard twice uttering the phrase ``plan a bomb'' or ``plan the bomb.''

At one point, he appears to justify a meeting with Klansmen at a river bridge one night shortly before the bombing: ``You've got to have a meeting to plan a bomb.''

Jurors listened to the electronically enhanced tape using headphones and were provided with transcripts by prosecutors.

Robbins fought hard to keep the jury from hearing the tape, arguing it shouldn't have been allowed because such recordings were not permitted as evidence in 1963, when the bombing occurred.

The judge sided with prosecutor Doug Jones, who contended that a change in the law in 1968 made the tape admissible.

Blanton is the second person put on trial in the bombing. Former Klansman Robert Chambliss was convicted of murder in 1977 and died in prison.

Ex-Klansman Bobby Frank Cherry was indicted with Blanton last year, but the judge delayed his trial after medical evaluations raised questions about his mental competency. A fourth suspect, Herman Cash, died without ever being charged.