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Breaking News

Former Klansmen Indicted in 1963 Church Bombing

Aired May 17, 2000 - 2:29 p.m. ET

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

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: We are now going to Jefferson County, Alabama. That's the Birmingham area where David Barber, the district attorney, is going to fill us in on some of the details on the men who turned themselves in after being indicted for the 1963 bombing of the Baptist church in Birmingham, in which four young girls died -- Mr. Barber.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: ... and then Doug Jones, U.S. attorney for the northern district of Alabama. And we also have attending Charlene Thorton (ph), who is the special agent in charge for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Birmingham division.

WATERS: All right. We have two suspects in jail, who have turned themselves in after being indicted. This story broke in 1963, shocked the nation when a bomb exploded and killed four young girls at a -- at a Baptist church in Birmingham. Two men were convicted, one died in prison. A fourth suspect also died.

DAVID BARBER, JEFFERSON COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY: Yesterday, May...

WATERS: Here we go.

BARBER: ... the 16th, a culmination of a two day session of the Jefferson County grand jury convened specially to hear testimony relative to the September 1963 fatal church bombing at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, returned indictments against two individuals, Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry, charging each of those individuals with four counts of murder in the first degree: murder in the first degree being under 1958 recompilation of the Alabama criminal code, which is the law that was in effect at that time.

These indictments are the result of the ongoing, continuing investigation by the United States attorney's office in cooperation with our office as a joint and federal investigation. I must also tell you that the -- an indictment is merely a charge, an allegation against these two individuals, and there is a presumption of innocence in these cases until there is a trial and a funding of guilty in these matters.

The prosecution team in this case will consist of United States attorney for the northern district of Alabama, Doug Jones; Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Posey (ph); Deputy District Attorney Jeff Wallace (ph) from this office. The attorney general for the state of Alabama, the Honorable Bill Pryor, has authorized U.S. attorney and his assistant to be special assistant attorneys general for the state of Alabama to participate in the state prosecution of this matter -- Mr. Jones.

DOUG JONES, U.S. ATTORNEY: Thanks, David.

As you all know, this case was reopened several years ago, and it's primarily through the work of the FBI, the local office here in Birmingham in conjunction with FBI headquarters and the Department of Justice that we have proceeded since about 1996.

As you also know, this matter has been conducted primarily in front of a federal grand jury over the last couple of years. However, because of a very limited jurisdiction that we had in federal court and because of a need to proceed with this case -- this is a very old case. We felt like it was incumbent to take the evidence as we have it, and proceed, and seek charges in front of a grand jury.

It was determined through my office and Mr. Barber's office that the best course of action would be to go forward with a specially called state grand jury. That grand jury had -- prior to that, however, the attorney general of the United States, Janet Reno, had authorized our office to release all information from the grand jury that we had. She also allowed Mr. Posey and I to be cross-designated. This has been a topic of hers, a very hot topic for her. She has had a unique interest in this case for the last several years and has been very supportive of the efforts that we've had in the last couple of years. And because of that, we summarized the evidence brought over here the last two days.

The state grand jury has returned the indictment. We have no idea at this point when this case will be set for trial. We do anticipate that there will be at this point -- both Mr. Blanton and Mr. Cherry are being held without bond. They have -- they did turn themselves in this morning. However, we expect in discussions with their lawyers that motions to reduce that bond will be filed shortly.

At this time, we have no idea when the court may hear any of that or when this case will be set for trial.

Thank you.

QUESTION: Mr. Jones?

JONES: Yes.

QUESTION: After roughly -- nearly 37 years, can you talk about what led to the charges this time around?

JONES: No, it really would not be appropriate for me to comment on the evidence. I think we have indicated for some time now that when this case was reopened that there was new information that came to light. The agents have worked very hard, going back through the old case. And we have additional information, and that's about all I can say.

We expect the evidence today to be a good bit different than what it would have been 36 years ago.

QUESTION: Mr. Jones...

QUESTION: Without discussing the evidence, can you discuss Mr. Blanton and Mr. Cherry, what you believe their role in the bombing was?

JONES: No, I can't do that. That -- that would be actually a discussion of the evidence, and it would be inappropriate to do.

QUESTION: You have lost some of the witnesses. Won't that make it a little bit difficult after all these years?

JONES: We don't believe so. You know, there are a lot of witnesses that have been interviewed and reinterviewed. And the witnesses that we have we believe are sufficient to sustain a charge. So I don't believe that would be difficult at all.

QUESTION: The testimony you have today is better than it was...

JONES: It wouldn't be appropriate to me to comment on the strengths and weaknesses of the evidence now versus 36 years ago.

QUESTION: Mr. Jones, (OFF-MIKE) does the state prosecution allow (OFF-MIKE)...

JONES: I don't think it allows us to do anything more other than we felt like the most appropriate venue under the evidence that we had would be in state court.

WATERS: That's U.S. Attorney Dough Jones, the man who will be prosecuting the case, a case of four counts of murder each against Thomas Blanton Jr. and Bob Cherry, who have turned themselves into authorities after being indicted by a specially called grand jury.

After consultation with Janet Reno, the U.S. attorney general, Mr. Jones said the evidence was presented in what he called a very old case. They got their indictment. He said we have witnesses, but he would not reveal what the evidence was that the grand jury heard or what might be presented at trial. And that trial date has not been set. He doesn't have any idea about that.

Right now, the suspects -- Blanton and Cherry -- are being held without bond. There probably will be a hearing soon to reduce that bond. And we'll continue to follow this story, as we have been, since 1963.

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