How do you prosecute a man for a crime he committed nearly four decades before?
“It’s like a wine,” attorney Doug Jones said. “It had to age.”
On Sept. 15, 1963, just five days after a few black boys were allowed into public schools for the first time in Alabama, a bomb exploded at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, killing four black girls, injuring 20 and provoking riots that left two dead.
It wasn’t until 2002, 39 years later, that a jury put Bobby Frank Cherry, the last living suspect, in prison for the murder of the four girls. One year earlier, Thomas Blanton Jr. was also convicted for the same crime.
Jones, the attorney who prosecuted the former Klu Klux Klan members, was at MU on Wednesday to teach law students about how he finished a puzzle that took 39 years to put together.
“It was not a slam-dunk case, but it was a case we could make and a case we had to make,” Jones said. “We couldn’t turn our back on the evidence.”
He was there to talk about obtaining delayed convictions in a case wrought with historical significance, but Jones said he wanted students to take home a simple message: “The justice system can ultimately do the right thing, and it really is never too late,” he said.
In 1977, Robert Chambliss was the first to be convicted for his role in the Birmingham bombing. Jones was a second-year law student at the time and skipped class to watch the trial.
“I never dreamed that 24 years later I’d be trying the same case,” he said.
Though the Birmingham bombing has been called the worst example of the racial violence that plagued the Southern civil rights movement, Jones said he tried to keep the focus on the girls.
“This was about families who lost their children,” he said.
But he acknowledged there was no escaping the weight of the case.
“What people forget is that it was the children who marched in Birmingham,” he said. “The children had become the symbols of the (civil rights) movement.”
All of the surviving family members of the four girls testified in both trials, but Jones said it wasn’t their stories that were most important.
In the investigations following the blast, Birmingham was saturated with FBI agents. They acquired tape recordings of the suspects talking about the bombs to their family and friends.
“Bobby Frank Cherry loved to talk, and talk he did. He couldn’t keep his mouth shut, and he couldn’t keep his story straight,” Jones said.
MU law professor Steve Easton, who arranged the lecture and teaches Famous Trials, the class Jones spoke to, said this case is an exception to the rule that a long delay between a crime and the trial makes a case harder to prosecute.
“The world changed a bit, especially in places like Birmingham, in those 39 years,” he said.
It would have been nearly impossible to convict a white man for crimes against black people in that time and place, Easton said, and witnesses would be more willing to testify with the passage of time. “There may be some folks who regret the way they behaved in 1963.”
Some, maybe, but not all.
Jones said he approached both Blanton and Cherry multiple times before the 2001 and 2002 trials to try to convince them to admit to and apologize for the crimes, but neither had interest in making amends.
“Reconciliation is a strong force in Birmingham,” Jones said. “I think (the city) would have embraced that.”