13 INVESTIGATES: Long Road to Justice - WVTM-TV: News, Weather, and Sports for Birmingham, AL

13 INVESTIGATES: Long Road to Justice

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BIRMINGHAM, AL -

Within two weeks of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing on September 15, 1963, there was an arrest.

Robert Chambliss was charged with misdemeanor possession of dynamite.

However, beyond that, prosecuting the people who killed four girls with explosives that Sunday morning 50 years ago, hit a brick wall.

"They would have had to have almost a rock-solid confession from anybody.  And even then, in the climate in Birmingham, with what would have been an all-white male jury, it would have been very difficult if not impossible to get a conviction in this case," recalled former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones.

Fourteen years after the bombing, Jones remembers Attorney General Bill Baxley prosecuting Chambliss for murder in a Jefferson County courtroom.

Jones was a second year law student in 1977, and he skipped classes to watch the testimony which led to Chambliss' conviction.

"I never dreamed, in my wildest imagination that 24 years later I would have the opportunity to finish the job that Bill Baxley, who was a true hero of mine for what he did in that case and many other things as Attorney General, to be able to finish the job that he started in the 1970's to do it in the same courtroom where I watched as a kid, everything kind of comes full circle," Jones said.

Fast forward to 1997.

Jones became the United States Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, which includes Birmingham.

He remembers when he first met with his staff about the church bombing case, which had been reopened the year before by the Department of Justice.

The first thing they say is to try temper your enthusiasm, Doug.  This is an old case.   So many witnesses are dead.  So many are old and their memories are going to be fading.  I said that basically, look, if we don't do it now, it's never going to get done," Jones remembered.

One of the biggest breaks in the case came two months before Jones took office.

In July of 1997, former Ku Klux Klan member Bobby Frank Cherry found out he was a target in the renewed bombing investigation.

Cherry decided to hold a press conference in Texas.

Little did he know, breaking his silence would ultimately motivate many others to do the same.

"I am innocent.  I never had anything to do with that thing.  Did not know who did," Cherry told a Texas television news reporter.

"As soon as that got shown in Texas and in Birmingham, the phone started ringing.  His granddaughter called.  A witness who had been in the cherry household the weekend of the bombing and saw him sitting around the kitchen table with others talking about the bomb and the bomb being ready and the 16th Street Baptist Church, called," Jones pointed out.

More witnesses started coming forward, including one which spotted Robert Chambliss and Tommy Blanton on the 16th Street Baptist Church steps at one in the morning, only two weeks before the bombing.

Then there was a hidden FBI recording, which had been considered inadmissible in court back in the 1960's.

"Finding an undercover tape, that was made by and FBI bug in 1964 at the Blanton apartment in which he admits to his wife that the weekend of the bombing he was at the river or the sign shop with a group planning the bomb, making the bomb.  That was the extraordinary find of all," Jones said.

Since murder has no statute of limitations under state law, it was decided Bobby Frank Cherry and Tommy Blanton would be tried in state court.

"These cases should always have been the State of Alabama versus Tommy Blanton and the State of Alabama versus Bobby Frank Cherry because it was the State of Alabama that let folks down so much in the 1960's, it was only appropriate and fitting that some 37-38 years later it was the State of Alabama to say it's time and we are ready to go," Jones argued.

As a Special Prosecutor under the Alabama Attorney General, Jones and his tireless team of prosecutors and investigators used decades of evidence to convict Tommy Blanton in April 2001 and Bobby Frank Cherry about a year later. 

For the families of the four girls, nearly 40 years of patience finally paid off.

"Our system of justice is not going to stop.  We're not going to let people down if at all possible," Jones concluded. 

Robert Chambliss died behind bars in 1985.

Bobby Frank Cherry passed away in prison in 2004.

Tommy Blanton is serving a life sentence in the St. Clair Correctional Facility in Springville.

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