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Large jury pool picked for church bombing trial

girls
The four girls killed in the 1963 church bombing, clockwise from upper left: Addie Mae Collins, 14; and Cynthia Dianne Wesley, 14; Carole Robertson, 14; and Denise McNair, 11  

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (CNN) -- Returning to one of the darkest days in the civil rights struggle, jury selection began Monday in the murder trial of a former member of the Ku Klux Klan suspected in a 1963 church bombing that killed four black girls.

"Justice seems to be mighty slow," the Rev. Abraham Lincoln Woods, a civil rights leader at the time, told CNN in an interview. "Even after 37 years, this case seems to be moving very slowly."

Thomas Blanton Jr., 62, pleaded innocent to charges that he played a role in the September 15, 1963, bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. He could face life in prison, if convicted.

Blanton entered the courtroom without comment, but his attorney, John Robbins, told the Associated Press, "He's nervous ... scared, as any human being would be under the scrutiny he's received."

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Lawyers were working with a jury pool of 125 people, three times larger than normal, and will winnow it down to 12 jurors and four alternates. Jury selection is expected to extend into next week. The trial itself is expected to last roughly four weeks.

Blanton is one of four men tied to the bombing.

Robert Chambliss was convicted in 1977 of murder and died in prison. Another suspect, Herman Cash, died in 1994 without being charged.

Bobby Frank Cherry, 71, who was to have been tried with Blanton, might never face trial after Judge James Garrett ruled last week that he was not mentally competent to assist his attorneys, postponing his trial indefinitely.

Sources close to the trial said prosecutors will produce audiotapes from a hidden microphone in Blanton's home in 1964 and reportedly will introduce a mystery witness, as well as others, who will implicate Blanton.


The four girls killed by the bomb were Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, all 14, and Denise McNair, 11.

Rev. Woods recalled being sickened by the incident, one of the most horrific from the civil rights era.

"If these terrorists, if these fanatics wanted to kill somebody, why didn't they single out those of use who were actively involved in the civil rights struggle?" he said.

In a statement reported by the Associated Press, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church congregation said the trial would not produce healing and suggested the case would have gone to court long ago had four white girls been killed.

"While a 38-year delay is not a real source of elation or encouragement, we do believe that it is never too late to do what is right," the congregation said.

In 1963 the church was a gathering place for protest marches during integration of Birmingham's all-white schools.

Two years after the bombing the FBI reported that four men were responsible, but in 1968 it closed the case without filing charges.

State prosecutors reopened it in the 1970s, resulting in the conviction of Chambliss. In 1997, FBI decided to take another look, and Blanton and Cherry were indicted by a local grand jury in May 2000.

Other civil rights-era murder cases also have been revived in recent years. Byron De La Beckwith was convicted in 1994 of assassinating civil rights leader Medgar Evers in Mississippi in 1963.

In 1998 a jury convicted Sam Bowers, a former imperial wizard of the Klan, in the 1966 firebomb-killing of an NAACP leader in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. In 1999 three men were convicted in Mississippi of the 1970 killing of a black sharecropper.



RELATED STORIES:
Second church bombing trial revives divisive memories
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Church bombing trial down to one ex-Klansman
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Accused church bombers on trial after 37 years
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Judge sets trial date in Birmingham church bombing case
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The ghosts of Alabama
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Two suspects surrender in 1963 Birmingham church bombing
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Birmingham church bombing timeline
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FBI reopens probe into 1963 church bombing
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RELATED SITES:
Welcome To The 16th Street Baptist Church Web Site
We Shall Overcome -- Sixteenth Street Baptist Church
Alabama Live Birmingham
Workers World July 24, 1997: FBI & Birmingham church bombing
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)


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