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Accused church bombers on trial after 37 years

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (Reuters) -- In the basement of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church here is an old clock, its hands frozen at the precise moment in 1963 when a bomb planted by white supremacists opposed to the civil rights movement exploded and killed four black girls.

Now, almost four decades later, an altogether different clock is ticking for two of the men believed responsible for the crime: It is the countdown to their trial for murder.

The trial of Bobby Frank Cherry and Thomas Blanton Jr., which begins April 16 in this once heavily segregated city, has stirred as many doubts as it has hopes that justice will finally be done in a case epitomizing the tortured history of the Deep South.

Cherry and Blanton, two local toughs who split from the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan in the early 1960s because they felt the group was too restrained, were arrested last year following an on-again, off-again 37-year police investigation.

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Both men, now old and frail, claim they are innocent of the bombing. Each faces life in prison if found guilty.

"They should be convicted, but that isn't the same thing as justice. This is 37 years too late," says Josephine Marshall, a black volunteer at the Sixteenth Street church who claims she remembers the bombing as if it had happened yesterday.

A typical Sunday

Sunday, September 15, 1963, began as an overcast and unusually cool day.

Black churchgoers, many dressed in their finest clothes, were making their way to the twin-domed Sixteenth Street church, home to the oldest and most prestigious black congregation in the city.

At 10:22 a.m., shortly after Sunday school services had finished in the church basement, the hand of hate struck. A loud thud was heard, followed by a shower of mortar, glass and dust.

The force of the explosion -- it echoed miles away -- cut the face of Jesus out of a stained glass window in the church and blew a gaping 7-foot by 7-foot hole in its eastern wall.

Disbelief turned to horror when the bodies of Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Addie Mae Collins, all aged 14, and Denise McNair, 11, were discovered neatly stacked on top of one another in the rubble of a destroyed lounge.

The explosion had ripped the white party dresses from their flesh and decapitated one of the girls. Rescuers initially mistook the victims for elderly women as their skin had such an aged, weathered look.

"I couldn't identify them but I knew they were from the church," said Rev. John Cross, the church's pastor at the time. Twenty other members of the congregation were injured by the bomb.

Outside, the mood of the black crowd grew ugly. Some picked up bottles and rocks and began pelting the all-white police officers at the scene, who responded by firing into the air.

Cross, who has been called as a witness in the upcoming trial, said it was a miracle that more people were not killed.

Suspects questioned early

The crime repulsed millions of Americans.

Upon hearing of the bombing, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. sent a cryptic telegram to Alabama's pugnacious governor, George Wallace, who had publicly defied attempts to integrate the state.

"The blood of our little children is on your hands," it read.

It did not take long for authorities to key in on several prime suspects, all white supremacists who seethed at the thought of blacks being allowed to frequent the same schools and restaurants as whites.

The Sixteenth Street church had become the nerve center for thousands of peaceful black protesters who took to the streets in the spring of 1963 to boldly challenge Birmingham's stiffly enforced segregation laws.

Some of the most famous images of the civil rights struggle -- black protesters savaged by police dogs and smashed into walls by fire hoses -- were filmed in Kelly Ingram Park across the street from the church.

In the weeks after the bombing, Cherry, Blanton, presumed ringleader Robert Chambliss and several other suspects were questioned but released without charges.

FBI lie detector tests suggested some of the men had lied during questioning, but the federal agency did not think it could make a case based on its evidence.

The investigation would sputter for more than a decade before Chambliss, nicknamed "Dynamite Bob" by his friends, was finally indicted for murder. In 1977, he was convicted and sent to prison where he died eight years later at the age of 81.

Herman Cash, another suspect, died several years after that without being charged.

In the 1990s, at the prompting of local black leaders, the FBI reopened the investigation, which culminated in the arrests last year of Cherry and Blanton.

New testimony expected

U.S. Attorney Doug Jones, who grew up in Birmingham, will try the case under a special agreement with local authorities. Jones would not specify what evidence led to the arrests except to say that circumstances in the case had changed.

Experts believe that the prosecution will focus on recently unearthed confessions from ex-Klansmen and relatives of the two accused. Cherry's ex-wife and a granddaughter have in recent years testified in front of a grand jury in Birmingham.

"He bragged about it. Bob told me he didn't put the bomb together. He said, 'I lit it,"' Willadean Brogdon, one of Cherry's five wives, told reporters on the steps of a Birmingham court in 1999.

Lawyers for Cherry, who is suffering from heart disease and diabetes, and Blanton, long suspected of using his car to ferry the killers to the church the night before the explosion, were not available for comment.

If they are convicted, Cherry and Blanton will join a growing number of Southern white supremacists who have found themselves sentenced to prison for civil rights crimes committed decades ago.

In 1994, Klan member Byron de la Beckwith was found guilty of the 1963 murder of Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers. Beckwith died earlier this year in a state prison.

Officials in Mississippi also have reopened an investigation into the slayings of three civil rights workers who were shot to death in 1964 while working to register black voters in the state.

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Birmingham church bombing timeline
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FBI reopens probe into 1963 church bombing
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We Shall Overcome -- Sixteenth Street Baptist Church
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Workers World July 24, 1997: FBI & Birmingham church bombing
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