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Monday, 16 April, 2001, 15:13 GMT 16:13 UK
Racist church bombing trial opens
The bomb killed four black girls
The bomb killed four black girls
By BBC News Online's Richard Allen Greene

When a bomb exploded at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, on 15 September 1963, the civil rights movement was gathering steam.

So was the reaction against it, perhaps best personified by then-Governor George Wallace's promise of "segregation forever".

The bomb killed four black girls, aged 11 to 14, and earned the city the nickname "Bombingham".

Bombing investigation
1963: Bomb kills four
1965: Four men named but not charged
1977: Robert Chambliss convicted. He dies in prison
1997: Case reopened
17 May 2000: Blanton and Cherry on murder charges
16 April 2001: Blanton trial opens, Cherry having been found unfit to stand trial
On Monday, 38 years after the event, the trial began of a former member of the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan Thomas Blanton Jr.

About 100 prospective jurors have been called and selection is expected to extend into next week.

The 62-year-old has denied murder and "universal malice" - a charge that reflects the accusation that the bomb he is accused of planting in the church was placed where it could have killed many more.

There is no statute of limitations on murder in most US states so the case can still be heard decades after the event.

A Federal Bureau of Investigation report compiled within 18 months of the bombing named Mr Blanton as one of four suspects, but the report was buried.

There was concern that some FBI recordings might not be admissible as evidence, and the FBI director of the day, J Edgar Hoover, said the case against the four Klansmen was weak.

But a 1980 Justice Department report found that Mr Hoover had withheld evidence in the case.

Case reopened

The case was reopened several times, and last spring, Mr Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry surrendered themselves.

Thomas Blanton Jr, the former Klansman standing trial for the 1963 Birmingham church bombing
Mr Blanton says he is innocent
Last week, Mr Cherry, 71, was found unfit to stand trial. The US Attorney prosecuting the case has asked for a second psychiatric evaluation of Mr Cherry.

Mr Cherry's lawyers did not list the alleged mental condition - vascular dementia - among mitigating factors when seeking bail for him last year.

Jury selection in Mr Blanton's trial begins on Monday and is expected to take all week.

Testimony begins when jury selection has ended, and could take well into May.

Mr Blanton and Mr Cherry are the only two living suspects in the bombing.

Conviction

An investigation in the 1970s resulted in the murder conviction of suspect Robert Edward Chambliss - known as "Dynamite Bob" - who died in prison in 1985 while serving a life term.

He always claimed he was innocent, but relatives testified that he told them he was involved in the bombing.

The case against Mr Cherry is also believed to be based on testimony from relatives.

A fourth suspect, Herman Cash, died in 1994 without ever having been charged.

The bombing, one of the most shocking racial crimes of the civil rights era, killed four girls at church.

Bobby Cherry, suspect in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing
Mr Cherry has been found unfit to stand trial
Church members were gathered for Sunday service when a dynamite bomb planted outside demolished a wall.

Eleven-year-old Denise McNair and three 14-year-olds, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Addie Mae Collins were killed.

Miss McNair was a friend of eight-year-old Birmingham neighbour Condoleezza Rice, who is now US National Security Adviser.

Confrontation

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 Dr Martin Luther King, the leading civil rights campaigner.

After Chambliss' conviction, the case was reopened in 1980 and 1988, but no new charges were brought.

It was reopened yet again in 1997.

The bombing is the subject of director Spike Lee's Oscar-nominated 1997 documentary, Four Little Girls.

A number of other people have been convicted of 1960s racist crimes in the past decade, including Byron De La Beckwith, who was convicted in 1994 of assassinating civil rights leader Medgar Evers in 1963.

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See also:

13 Sep 00 | Americas
First black mayor in Selma
18 May 00 | Americas
Klansmen deny church bombing
18 May 00 | Americas
Two accused of racist bombing
14 Sep 98 | Americas
Governor Wallace dies at 79
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