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Breaking News

Church Bombing Suspect Surrenders

Aired May 17, 2000 - 10:10 a.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: A suspect has been arrested in a long- standing murder investigation. The 1963 bombing of Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church. Thomas Blanton Jr. turned himself into early this morning in Birmingham, Alabama. Again, this is a case that is 37 years old. Four young girls died in that church blast, and that fueled even more passion in the civil right struggle of the 1960s.

Let's bring in our Roger Cossack, who is standing by in our Washington bureau to get more of a legal perspective on this.

Roger, how does this work, 1963, 37 years later, how do you get an indictment, a murder indictment, in a case like that?

ROGER COSSACK, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, first of all, there is no statute of limitations on a murder charge. So this is an investigation, we can say, has presumably been onward and open for all of these year. There has been one person that was previously convict of this case, and that was Robert Chambliss, who died in prison. But there has been ongoing federal and state grand jury investigations over the last several years, and I believe probably, although we don't know because grand jury proceedings are secret, that obviously, enough evidence has been gathered by the state grand jury who believes that they -- there is probable cause, which is the standard, and that an indictment has been returned against this individual.

KAGAN: And I guess there are actually two living suspects at this time, the other is Bobbie Frank Cherry. He is in custody on a totally different charge. he has not been charged with this crime at this time.

Roger, I want to get your perspective, as a former prosecutor. How difficult is it to make a case that's 37 years old?

COSSACK: It is rough. Witnesses are no longer available, if -- maybe not even living. Memories fade. It's a very, very difficult situation for a prosecutor. One only can suspect here, or I suspect here, that perhaps there is some strong physical evidence, which may tie this suspect to the case, perhaps even DNA. Who knows? Because secret, as you know, grand juries are secret. But it's very tough for a prosecutor. As I said, you know, witnesses fade, and memories fade, and it's tough.

KAGAN: That's the hard part. But do prosecutors today have scientific capabilities and tools they can use that they didn't have in 1963?

COSSACK: Well, yes, and of course, the first thing that comes to mind is DNA. The use of DNA today is something that was, you know, just not done in 1963. So there are things that are available to prosecutors, to forensic pathologists, to scientists, that just, as you suggest, were not available. And you know, I suspect that there is some hard, physical evidence that would connect this man -- we don't know yet -- But you know, that would connect this suspect to the crime.

Because if you're relying on statements that were made 37 years ago or witnesses from 37 years ago, I think it is just a hard way to go.

KAGAN: That is not going to be enough. As you say, the grand jury operates in secrecy. So we don't have that much information at this point. But Roger, we appreciate your legal perspective this morning.

COSSACK: My pleasure.

KAGAN: We also have John Lewis on the phone with us, Congressman John Lewis right now, Democratic congressman from Georgia, but also very well-known for his work in the civil rights struggle.

Congressman, thanks for joining us this morning by phone.

REP. JOHN LEWIS (D), GEORGIA: Thank you.

KAGAN: Can you give us your reaction to the news of this arrest?

LEWIS: Well, I am very pleased and happy that arrest has been made. It reminds me of what happened so clearly 37 years ago on September 15, 1963.

KAGAN: Take us back to that day, congressman, when you got that news and how it affected you and the other civil rights workers?

LEWIS: Well, during that period, I was the national chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. And I was in Alabama about 2 1/2 hours away from Birmingham, visiting my family. And I heard of the bombing. It was very shocking. It was a very dark hour and a dark period for the civil rights movement.

That Sunday morning at about 9:30, when the bombing occurred that killed the four little girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church. I arrived in Birmingham a few hours later, and it was just very sad. Many of us cried and later we pulled ourselves together, prepared for the funerals of these four little girls, and we made a commitment that we would do whatever we could to continue the struggle to end segregation and racial discrimination in the name of these four young girls.

KAGAN: And here we are 37 years later. In some ways, the struggle continues.

LEWIS: The struggle is an ongoing struggle, 37 years later maybe justice will be done.

KAGAN: Congressman John Lewis, thanks for joining us today.

LEWIS: Thank you,

KAGAN: Appreciate it. We will continue to get more on this story as information comes in, we will deliver it to you here at CNN.

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