Two Surrender in Church Bombing

Wednesday, May 17th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Two longtime suspects surrendered today 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 Blanton's attorney, David Luker. Shortly before noon, Bobby Frank Cherry also arrived to be booked. Both are former members of the Ku Klux Klan.

Cherry's attorney, Mickey Johnson, said Cherry was charged with eight counts of murder — two counts covering each of the four slain girls. He said one count was for intentional murder and the other involved ``universal malice'' because the bomb was placed where it could have killed any number of people.

The sheriff's office listed the charge against Blanton as murder, but the details were not immediately released.

Both lawyers said their clients deny wrongdoing. Johnson said Cherry is in ill health.

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

Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor said U.S. Attorney Doug Jones, who oversaw the reopened federal probe, will handle the state murder prosecution. Jones is being designated as a state prosecutor and will have authority to try the case in state court, said Pryor.

Jones and District Attorney David Barber did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment today. A news conference was set for this afternoon.

Blanton, in his early 60s, of Birmingham, and Cherry, 69, of Mabank, Texas, are the only two living suspects in the bombing, which killed the girls at church on a Sunday morning, one of the most shocking racial crimes of the civil rights era.

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

On Tuesday, 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 11-year-old Denise McNair 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.

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

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 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, Jones and an FBI agent mingled with county prosecutors.

The bombing is the subject of 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.