Jurors hear tape in trial of 1963 bombing

The Associated Press
Saturday April 28, 2001

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Jurors heard a murky, secretly recorded FBI tape Friday that prosecutors say shows a former Ku Klux Klansman plotted a 1963 church bombing that killed four black girls. 

Thomas Blanton Jr., on trial for murder, can be heard twice uttering the phrase “plan a bomb” or “plan the bomb” on the tape, recorded with a hidden listening device in his kitchen nine months after the explosion at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. 

At one point, he appears to justify a meeting with Klansmen at a river bridge one night shortly before the bombing: “You’ve got to have a meeting to plan a bomb.” 

Jurors listened to the electronically enhanced tape using headphones and were provided with transcripts by prosecutors. The tinny audio was mostly inaudible to spectators in the large, wood-paneled courtroom, but reporters were later allowed to listen to the tape on headphones. Judge James Garrett refused to provide a transcript to the public. 

Defense lawyer John Robbins said prosecutors are taped only part of a conversation, have distorted the meaning of his client’s words and chose not to enhance essential parts that were unintelligible. He said Blanton actually was talking with his then-wife, Carolyn Jeanne Barnes, about being hounded by FBI agents investigating the explosion. 

“You do not know the context of this conversation because the FBI didn’t record the beginning,” Robbins said outside court. “You can’t judge a person’s conversation in a vacuum.” 

The bomb went off outside the church on Sept. 15, 1963, a Sunday. The girls, who were gathered in a downstairs lounge preparing for a youth worship service, died in a storm of brick and other debris. 

The explosion killed Denise McNair, 11, and Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, all 14. It was one of the most notorious crimes of the civil rights era. 

Blanton, now 62, was identified as a suspect within weeks of the blast. He has always denied any involvement. 

Two FBI agents testified that in June 1964 they secretly placed a microphone against a kitchen wall in an apartment Blanton shared with his wife, whom he has since divorced. 

The tape records Blanton’s response when his wife asked him about going to a Cahaba River bridge on a night before the bombing. She is concerned that Blanton may have been with a former girlfriend, Waylene Vaughn, on the Friday night before the Sunday bombing. 

Blanton says he was at the river bridge meeting, not with Vaughn, and along with saying the phrase “plan a bomb” or “plan the bomb,” he voices the words “making a bomb.” 

Robbins fought hard to keep jurors from hearing the tape. Earlier prosecution testimony sought to show Blanton, a crude-spoken racist at the time, was capable of taking part in the bombing; the FBI tape was supposed to link him directly to it. The courtroom, mostly empty for earlier testimony, was more than half full Friday when the tape was played. 

Robbins argued that the tape should not have been allowed because such recordings were not permitted as evidence in 1963. The judge sided with prosecutor Doug Jones, who contended that a change in the law in 1968 made the tape admissible. 

FBI agent Bill Fleming said the quality of the nearly 37-year-old tape was digitally enhanced using equipment unavailable at the time of the bombing. More than a half-dozen agents, stenographers and an expert listened to the tape dozens of times to complete the transcript, he said. 

After Friday’s testimony, Jones said he will not call Blanton’s former wife as a witness. She has said Blanton was with her the night before the bombing and not with Klansmen planting it. 

Jones indicated her story hasn’t changed. “I don’t need an alibi for Tommy Blanton in my prosecution,” he said. 

By not calling her, Jones will not be able to back up his claim in opening statements that Blanton giggled when she asked him about the bombing. 

Blanton is the second person put on trial in the bombing. Former Klansman Robert “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss was convicted of murder in 1977 and died in prison. 

Ex-Klansman Bobby Frank Cherry was indicted with Blanton last year, but the judge delayed his trial after medical evaluations raised questions about his mental competency. A fourth suspect, Herman Cash, died without ever being charged.