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n the spring of 1963, after months of demonstrations, the Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth, a Birmingham, Ala., civil rights leader, said the city had reached "an accord with its conscience" with regard to desegregating downtown department stores. But on a deeper level, Birmingham's conscience and that of the nation have been haunted by an event that occurred a few months later, on Sept. 15. A bomb planted by members of the Ku Klux Klan at the 16th Street Baptist Church killed four black girls Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins and Cynthia Wesley during Sunday services. After decades of delay, justice and conscience moved more closely into accord on Tuesday, when a Birmingham jury convicted Thomas Blanton Jr. of murdering those children.
Nothing can make up fully for the delay caused by decades of fitful cooperation between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and local law enforcement. But with the Blanton conviction, two of the four main suspects have received life sentences. Robert Chambliss, known locally as "Dynamite Bob," was convicted in 1977 and died in prison in 1985. Those convictions send a powerful message that succeeding generations of Southern prosecutors, such as Doug Jones, the United States attorney in Birmingham, have not forgotten the racial cases that had been either ignored or bungled. The prosecution of the 16th Street case also stands as a tribute to the dignified effort of Chris and Maxine McNair and Alpha Robertson, parents of two of the victims, to keep the memory of the case alive.
The prosecutorial history of the case is a tangled and contentious one. J. Edgar Hoover, the F.B.I. director, originally blocked prosecution of the case in 1965, overruling his own agents in Birmingham who had filed reports that Robert Chambliss, Thomas Blanton, Bobby Frank Cherry and Herman Cash, now deceased, had planted the bomb. The Chambliss conviction was secured by Bill Baxley, then the Alabama attorney general, when the F.B.I. gave him some of the files that Hoover had sat on. But as Mr. Baxley argues in an article on the adjoining page, the bureau withheld information supplied to Mr. Jones for the Blanton trial after the local F.B.I. office reopened the case in 1993.
Mr. Baxley believes that with full access to the F.B.I. files he could have brought Thomas Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry to trial with Robert Chambliss in 1977. The passage of time erodes the evidence and available testimony in any case, and that makes Doug Jones's ability to prevail on the highly circumstantial case that could be put together this year a striking achievement. He insisted that the F.B.I. give him full access to 9,000 documents and tapes, including the "kitchen tape" that probably sent Thomas Blanton to jail. An F.B.I. listening device placed in the Klansman's kitchen in 1964 caught him telling his wife about planning and building "the bomb."
Although the two prosecutors differ on their view of the F.B.I.'s role, there are some striking connections between the trials. While in law school, Mr. Jones, a white Alabamian raised only a few miles from the bombed church, watched Mr. Baxley, another white Alabamian, conduct the Chambliss trial. Racial tensions were still close to the surface in Alabama in 1977, and that trial may have cost Mr. Baxley his chance to be governor. But in both cases, it was a biracial jury of Birmingham citizens that brought in speedy and stern verdicts.
The lengthy complications can be viewed as cruelly frustrating, but there is also room for the more positive point suggested by Doug Jones on Tuesday. "Justice delayed is still justice," he said. A Mississippi court's conviction in 1994 of Byron De La Beckwith in the Medgar Evers murder and now the fact that 62-year-old Thomas Blanton is headed for prison both show that a belated prosecution is better than none at all.
There is one more chapter to be played out in the Birmingham story. Bobby Frank Cherry, now 72, has been indicted for murder, but was declared mentally incompetent to stand trial after a psychiatric evaluation. Mr. Jones has secured an order by the trial judge, James Garrett, to allow a second examination. Certainly Mr. Cherry's legal rights have to be protected by the court. But if a new medical opinion, expected in one to two months, allows the trial to go forward, it is reassuring to know that the Birmingham of today has a prosecutor ready for trial, a full bundle of F.B.I. evidence and juries willing to reach a just verdict in a complicated case.