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Why Did the FBI Hold Back Evidence?

Slow justice in Birmingham church bombing.

By Bill Baxley
former Attorney General of Alabama

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. This week, a guilty verdict was returned against Thomas Blanton for the dynamite bomb deaths of Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson on Sept. 15, 1963, in a Birmingham church. In 1977, as Alabama attorney general, I prosecuted Mr. Blanton's associate Robert Chambliss for the same crime. It took a long enough time to bring him to trial and far too long, unnecessarily long, to do the same with Mr. Blanton.

Within days of taking office as attorney general in January 1971, I opened an investigation of these murders. After a few false starts, my staff and I identified Mr. Chambliss, Mr. Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry as principals. These individuals had been identified by the FBI when the 1963 bombing occurred.

Soon it became clear these men could not be prosecuted without assistance from the FBI  For several years, I requested, demanded and begged the FBI for evidence.

After we were repeatedly stonewalled, my faith in the integrity of the FBI dissipated. What had at first seemed an innocent bureaucratic shuffle was revealed to be a charade. In exasperation, I shared my frustration with Jack Nelson, an Alabama native who was then Washington bureau chief for The Los Angeles Times. He went to officials at the Justice Department and threatened to reveal the FBI's refusal to cooperate with our investigation. Only then did the FBI share its evidence.

We quickly pieced evidence from the FBI together with our own. A jury of nine whites and three blacks convicted Mr. Chambliss. He was sent to prison and died there, unrepentant.

Mr. Blanton and Mr. Cherry remained at large; we lacked evidence as good as that we had had for Mr. Chambliss. I left government and moved to Birmingham, where I was reminded daily of my certainty of Mr. Blanton's and Mr. Cherry's guilt. I hoped someone would come forward with more evidence. No one did.

In 1997, I learned that Doug Jones, the United States Attorney in Birmingham, whom I knew to be ethical and highly competent, had opened, once again, investigations of Mr. Blanton and Mr. Cherry. The two men were indicted and I was astonished to learn that the FBI had tape recordings of Mr. Blanton from the 1960's that incriminated both of them. I was also livid. For more than two decades, Mr. Blanton and Mr. Cherry evaded indictment and prosecution because the FBI held back these recordings. This was evidence we desperately needed in 1977 evidence whose existence FBI officials had denied. Had it been provided in 1977, we could have convicted all three of these Klansmen.

I held my tongue when I learned of this deception. I did so to prevent lawyers for Mr. Blanton and Mr. Cherry from trumpeting the FBI's dishonesty as a distraction. Mr. Blanton has been convicted thanks greatly to the new evidence. Mr. Cherry, due to his alleged mental state, may not be tried. There is no longer any reason for me to remain silent.

Why would the FBI aid Klansmen in avoidance of prosecution? I don't know. I consider myself a practical person. I could understand FBI reluctance to share information if it were actively pursuing a case of its own. But all federal statutes of limitation had expired when this deceit took place, and only in state court Alabama has no statute of limitations for murder could a case against Mr. Blanton or Mr. Cherry proceed. (Mr. Jones, the federal attorney, prosecuted the Blanton case on Alabama's behalf.) Most of the tape recordings admissible against Mr. Blanton in 2001 were admissible in 1977.

What excuse can the FBI have for allowing Mr. Blanton to go free for 24 years with this smoking gun evidence hidden in its files? How can the FBI justify this to the families of four precious girls? I don't know. I do know that rank-and-file FBI agents working with us were conscientious and championed our cause. The disgust I feel is for those in higher places who did nothing.

A reprint of this article was included in the July 2001 Earth First! Bombing Case Update mailing, which included a Letter to Friends and Supporters and the Summer 2001 Bombing Case Update

See also Prof. Howard Zinn's statement on the FBI's long history of political repression