KKK member turned informant to be witness in church bombing trial

Wednesday, April 18th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) _ It was all Ku Klux Klansman Mitchell Burns could do to keep from getting sick to his stomach.

Laid out in front of him were morgue photographs of four black girls killed when a bomb exploded at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Their bodies were burned and mangled.

As a Klansman when the church was bombed in 1963, Burns didn't have much sympathy for blacks and the civil rights movement. But something within him changed when an FBI agent showed Burns those pictures and asked for help finding the girls' killers.

``I told them I'd help them all I could,'' he says in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press. ``It was all because of those pictures.''

Burns became a confidential, paid informant known by an FBI number he cannot recall and a pseudonym he can _ Tom Dooly. He let agents put a tape recorder in the trunk of his '56 Chevy and went out night after night with Tommy Blanton, a fellow Klansman.

That was nearly four decades ago, when Burns was 36. Today, at 73, he is about to testify for the prosecution in the murder case against Blanton, now 62.

Jury selection began Monday for Blanton's trial in the church bombing, the deadliest act of violence against the civil rights movement. A judge last week cited medical problems in indefinitely postponing the trial of another ex-Klansman, Bobby Frank Cherry, 71, who was indicted with Blanton.

Burns spoke in a series of interviews since last summer but asked that his remarks not be used until potential jurors were told not to read news accounts of the case.

Burns _ who left the Klan more than three decades ago _ says he never heard Blanton or Cherry directly claim responsibility for the blast. Burns and the two other men were in different Klan groups.

But prosecutors have the tapes and three bound volumes of reports documenting Burns' work, and included in the printed material are potentially incriminating statements by both men, including Burns' claim that Blanton once said: ``They ain't gonna catch me when I bomb my next church.''

Blanton would often want to go sit outside the Sixteenth Street Church in the car after drinking, Burns says. ``It was like he got a charge out of it,'' Burns says.

Burns' voice is gravelly after years of smoking unfiltered cigarettes. He says he has never been afraid of the Klan or anyone else, but he often keeps a loaded .38-caliber revolver on his kitchen table.

``They weren't crazy, they were just mean as hell. I mean hate,'' says Burns, a small, gray-haired man.

The judge has barred attorneys in the case from publicly discussing evidence involving confidential informants, but Blanton apparently is worried about Burns' testimony.

Defense attorney John Robbins asked Judge James Garrett to bar jurors from hearing 30 taped conversations between Burns and Blanton. Robbins said the recordings are so scratchy and faint jurors will not be able to hear what is being said. The judge said he will consider whether to admit the recordings as they come up in court.

Burns' undercover work was a secret for decades. Virtually no one knew what he had done: not his late wife; not his two daughters; not even state investigators or Birmingham police, whose ranks included Klan sympathizers.

But Burns' name surfaced last year in court files that identified him as a witness in front of the grand jury that indicted Blanton and Cherry.

He says he is proud of what he did all those years ago as an informant, and he is ready to take the stand against Blanton.

``I've got to live with myself after this is over,'' he says. ``I've got to go home and look at myself in the mirror and I've got to go sleep. I can't lie and do that.''

Burns got involved in the investigation within weeks of the bombing, which came during a tumultuous year of civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, where segregation was the law. Blanton already was a suspect, and agents were looking for anyone _ particularly someone in the Klan _ who could help them get close to him.

Burns says an agent approached him after seeing him talking to Blanton at a cafe where Klansmen hung out. Burns initially refused to help investigators. But he relented after seeing those grisly photos of Denise McNair, 11, and 14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson.

Burns was paid $200 a month for talking to Blanton and relaying to agents anything he could find out.

Burns and Blanton were soon spending a lot of time together. When Blanton asked for help picketing FBI headquarters to protest ``harassment'' by agents, Burns went along.

When Blanton wanted to go drinking, Burns offered his car and let Blanton drive. The tape machine was running whenever the two were in the vehicle, Burns says, and the radio was disabled to keep down the noise.

Burns did not have a body microphone, so he wrote detailed reports about things that were said inside bars or elsewhere by Blanton.

The alleged statements by Blanton and others could be attacked by the defense as the ramblings of boastful, drunken Klansmen. So could Burns' extensive written reports, since many were completed after a night on the town.

But Burns says he never got ``staggering'' drunk. He also denies being a racist. He says that he never participated in Klan violence and that he has a spotless record _ ``not even a speeding ticket.''

Burns says practically every man he knew was in the Klan in the early '60s, and he was only ``playing a part'' in using vile racial slurs with Blanton. ``I had to act as mean as him,'' Burns says.

Burns' undercover work continued for three or four years _ he cannot remember exactly how long. With no explicit admission of the bombing on tape, he says, the FBI finally had him ask Blanton point-blank whether he bombed the church.

Blanton grew quiet, according to Burns. Then he turned and asked a question of his own: ``Mitch, did you bomb that church?''

Blanton and Burns rarely saw each other after that. Burns retired more than a decade ago from a courier company and spends his nights dancing to country music at a senior citizens center. Blanton worked at a Wal-Mart until he and Cherry were indicted last summer.

Burns says he believes the right man is about to go on trial. But he is unsure whether there is enough evidence for a conviction.

``He never admitted he did it. It's all circumstantial,'' he says.