Pastor describes horror of digging for bodies after church bombing

Wednesday, April 25th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) _ The Rev. John Cross vividly recalls digging through the debris at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and discovering the bodies of four young girls buried in wreckage.

``They were all stacked on top of each other, clung together,'' said the former pastor, the first of 10 witnesses to testify Tuesday in the murder trial of former Ku Klux Klansman Richard Blanton.

Blanton, 62, became a suspect within weeks of the Sept. 15, 1963 explosion and has proclaimed his innocence for the past 38 years.

In his opening remarks, prosecutor Doug Jones said secretly recorded FBI tapes and other evidence would show Blanton plotted the bombing with other Klansmen and later giggled when he discussed the plans with his then-wife.

``He giggled about going to the river to plan a bomb that killed Denise, Addie, Carole and Cynthia,'' said Jones, referring to 11-year-old Denise McNair and 14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson.

Defense attorney John Robbins acknowledged that Blanton was a loudmouth segregationist but told the jury ``because you don't like him, that doesn't make him responsible.''

The Sixteenth Street Baptist church was often a gathering place for civil rights demonstrators. On the morning of the bombing, Sunday school was under way in the sanctuary upstairs while the four girls were in a downstairs bathroom preparing for church.

Looking at a picture of her daughter, Maxine McNair fought back tears and told the court she was sitting in the choir loft at 10:25 a.m. when the explosion rocked the church.

``We heard this loud noise. The first thing I thought about was my baby,'' McNair said.

``My uncle came up to me carrying one of Denise's shoes and he told me she was dead,'' she added.

During a break in testimony, Robertson's mother praised prosecutors for bringing the case to trial after nearly four decades.

``If he is convicted, he will suffer just like I have,'' said Alpha Robertson, 82.

Earlier and without elaborating, Circuit Judge James Garrett rejected defense motions for a mistrial and change of venue.

Garret was to rule Wednesday on whether jurors can hear testimony from FBI explosives expert Mark Whitworth, who told the court that damage to the church was consistent with the detonation of an explosive like dynamite. The defense has argued the testimony is not relevant.

The jury includes eight white women, two white men, three black women and three black men who were selected Monday. Four of them will be chosen as alternates when deliberations begin.

Another former Klansman, 71-year-old Bobby Frank Cherry, was indicted along with Blanton but his trial was delayed by questions over his mental competence. Robert ``Dynamite Bob'' Chambliss was convicted of murder in the bombing in 1977 and died in prison.

A fourth suspect, Herman Cash, died without ever being charged.