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Ex-Klansmen charged in '63 church bombing

The Birmingham bomb- ing that killed four girls is one of the latest civil rights cases to be revisited.

Nearly 37 years after a bombing at Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church that horrified the nation, authorities charged two longtime suspects with murder on Wednesday in the deaths of four girls.

Thomas E. Blanton Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry, both former Ku Klux Klansmen, have been considered suspects in the 1963 bombing for decades. They turned themselves in Wednesday after being indicted by a state grand jury on Tuesday.

Only one man, Robert Chambliss, has ever been tried in the case, and that was not until 1977, 14 years after the bombing. He was convicted of murder, sentenced to life and died in prison in 1985. Herman Cash, another man named as a suspect in early FBI case files, died in 1994 without ever being charged.

Federal authorities reopened their investigation of the bombing in 1996, encouraged by recent successful prosecutions of other decades-old killings in civil rights cases. But they declined on Wednesday to discuss the evidence they have gathered against Blanton, 61, of Birmingham, and Cherry, 69, of Mabank, Texas.

Several of Cherry's relatives, including an ex-wife and a granddaughter, have said they told grand jurors that Cherry had boasted of taking part in the bombing. But there is little information about what additional new evidence, if any, investigators may have found to implicate either Cherry or Blanton.

Asked about the evidence at a news conference Wednesday, Doug Jones, the U.S. attorney, would only say, "We expect the evidence todayto be a good bit different than it would have been 36 years ago." The evidence lent itself better to a prosecution under state charges rather than federal ones, Jones said.

Though some witnesses have died and there have been no reports of new physical evidence, prosecutors said Wednesday that they were optimistic about their chances to win convictions. "The witnesses that we have, we believe, are sufficient to sustain the charge," Jones said.

Blanton and Cherry were each charged with eight counts of murder _ two counts for each of the four girls. The counts cover intentional murder and "universal malice" because the bomb could have killed many more people.

The prosecutions of Blanton and Cherry are the latest in a series of dusty civil rights cases that have been reopened in recent years as a new breed of Southern prosecutors have come to power, as new witnesses have come forward to relieve guilty consciences, and as changing times and demographics have made it easier to impanel jurors willing to convict whites for killing blacks.

The Birmingham bombing holds a special place in civil rights history because of the randomness of its violence, the sacredness of its target and the age of its victims. The four girls _ Denise McNair, 11, and Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, all 14 _ died in a dressing room in the church basement when the bomb detonated at 10:19 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 15, 1963. The bomb, apparently hidden under the church steps the night before, blew the face of Jesus out of a stained glass window. The bodies of the girls, dressed in white for a youth service, were found beneath the rubble.

The church had been a center of civil rights activity in Birmingham, a city that experienced some of the most violent resistance of the day. Perhaps as much as any single act, the bombing aroused public sentiment against Southern segregationists and emboldened civil rights leaders to redouble their efforts. More recently, the incident was the subject of Spike Lee's acclaimed documentary, Four Little Girls.

In an unusual circumstance, the cases brought on Wednesday will be tried in the state courts even though the FBI and federal prosecutors have led the re-examination of the bombing. Jones said his ability to prosecute the case in the federal courts was hindered by jurisdictional issues and by the statute of limitations.

There is no statute of limitations for murder in Alabama. If the case goes to trial, Jones and one of his assistants will be deputized as state prosecutors and will join a deputy district attorney in the courtroom.

David Barber, the district attorney in Birmingham, said he would not pursue the death penalty.