Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Birmingham Church Bombing: Bombingham

'Simple Justice Demands'

Since Alabama law prevented Bill Baxley from serving more than two terms as attorney general, he could not be re-elected. He made several attempts at the governor's job but was unsuccessful. Baxley blamed his obsession with the Birmingham church bombing. His successors did not share his enthusiasm for the case and as a result, it was mostly abandoned. During the late 1980s, there were several attempts to jump start the investigation, but those attempts went nowhere.

By 1997, however, the FBI and the Birmingham police announced they were reopening the case as a result of "new information that might now allow them, 34 years after the crime, to bring the others to justice." For months, a task force had been following new leads and interviewing old witnesses with the ultimate aim of presenting the findings to a grand jury. A New York Times editorial of July 11, 1997, praised the move: "There is considerable evidence against them (the suspects) in state and federal files, and simple justice demands that every effort be expended to give these men the punishment they have evaded for 34 years."

Attorney Doug Jones
Attorney Doug Jones

In Birmingham, U.S. Attorney Doug Jones would be the man in charge of the prosecution team. But already, the FBI was not happy. Portrayed as obstructionist, the FBI took exception to the way it was characterized in the media. In a press release, the FBI said it had valid reasons for withholding certain information from local authorities. Foremost, the bureau did not want to expose and thereby jeopardize their many Birmingham informants who were deeply imbedded in the Ku Klux Klan. Secondly, there was a strong distrust between federal agents and KKK sympathizers in the Birmingham police department. Former Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley backed up the FBI in a newspaper article published years before. In it, he wrote, "They had every reason to distrust a Deep South law enforcement officer in a race based case."

But the investigation crawled forward agonizingly slow. Federal agents located and interviewed 59-year-old Bobby Frank Cherry, then living in a ramshackle trailer in east Texas. Thomas Blanton Jr. was still living in Birmingham and was questioned by Birmingham police. Both suspects maintained their innocence and said they had nothing to do with the killings. Agents already knew that the fourth suspect, Herman Frank Cash, had died in 1994 without implicating any fellow Klan members. Old witnesses were again called in for statements and depositions. In the spring of 2000, the case was presented to a Birmingham grand jury.

On May 16, 2000, Cherry and Blanton were arrested on eight counts of first-degree murder. The jury had indicted both men on all charges.

"This was a tragedy of just absolute proportions," U.S. Attorney Jones told reporters, "It has scarred the city of Birmingham for almost 37 years. There needs to be some sort of closure."

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