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Wednesday, 25 April, 2001, 16:19 GMT 17:19 UK
Witnesses re-live Alabama church bombing
The bomb killed four black girls
The bomb killed four black girls
A former member of the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan was driven by "hatred and hostility" towards blacks to bomb a church in Alabama nearly 40 years ago, a court in the American city of Birmingham has been told.

Four young girls were killed when the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, was bombed on 15 September 1963.

In his opening statement to the jury, prosecutor Doug Jones said secretly recorded FBI tapes and other evidence would show Thomas Blanton plotted the bombing with other Klansmen and later laughed when he told his then-wife of the plans.

Thomas Blanton Jr, the former Klansman standing trial for the 1963 Birmingham church bombing
Mr Blanton says he is innocent
Mr Blanton's defence lawyer, John Robbins, said his client might have been a racist, but was not guilty of the bombing.

"Just because you don't like him and the views he espoused doesn't make him responsible for this tragedy," Mr Robbins told the jury.

Mr Blanton, 62, denies 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.

Significant target

Congregation members were gathered for Sunday service at their church, a centre of equal-rights activism, when a dynamite bomb planted outside demolished a wall.

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 Tuesday, the pastor of the church at the time of the bombing, the Reverend John Cross, vividly recalled digging through the debris at the church and discovering the girls' bodies.

"They were all stacked on top of each other, clung together," said the former pastor, the first of 10 witnesses to testify.

Denise McNair, 11, and Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Addie Mae Collins, all 14, were killed.

Thelma McNair, mother of Denise, testified that when she heard the blast, she cried "My baby, my baby", as she looked for her daughter.

Mr Robbins did not deny that his client was a racist.

"You're not going to like Tom Blanton. He was 25 years old. He was a loudmouth. He was annoying. He was a segregationist," he said.

But he told the jury that the trial was "not a popularity contest".

He urged the jury to decide on the basis of facts, not emotions.

No statute of limitations

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

Bobby Cherry, suspect in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing
Mr Cherry has been found unfit to stand trial
The trial of Mr Blanton is expected to last about three weeks. If convicted, he faces life in prison.

Mr Blanton is accused of planting the bomb along with three other men.

One of those men, Robert Chambliss, was convicted of participating in the bombing in 1977 and died in prison.

Another suspect died without ever having been charged, while the fourth, Bobby Frank Cherry, has been ruled mentally unfit to stand trial, pending a new psychiatric examination.

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See also:

16 Apr 01 | Americas
Racist church bombing trial opens
18 May 00 | Americas
Klansmen deny church bombing
18 May 00 | Americas
Two accused of racist bombing
14 Sep 98 | Americas
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