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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) – More than three decades passed before the last two men involved in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing stood trial. Now, the pictures used to build a case against the defendants are being showcased by the former U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case.
They played a major role in securing long overdue justice.
For prosecutor Doug Jones, photos and film footage from the Civil Rights Era were more than powerful images that gripped the heart of a nation, they were key evidence that led to the final two convictions in the bombing.
Jones narrated a presentation of the images for people who gathered at the Birmingham Museum of Art on Tuesday.
“Most of this is the evidence that we used at trial,” said Doug Jones, a former U.S. Attorney. “You know this was not a case or cases that we tried where there was DNA evidence, there was anything like that. We had testimony, we had a couple of videos, but the real stories came from the images.”
There were other unsolved bombings in Birmingham from that decade, including two explosions just weeks after the one that killed four children at the 16th Street Baptist Church.
“It was on Center Street and in that, that bombing was the one that in which there were actually two bombings. One was a decoy bomb and the second one had shrapnel, you know nails and shrapnel in it, clearly designed to kill people. So it became pretty evident I think that by this time in the late summer early fall as the Civil Rights Movement grew, as Birmingham schools were being integrated for the first time that the Klan felt like that the only way that they could stop things was to step up the violence and actually, and actually put bodies on the street,” said Jones.
“We looked at a lot of different bombings in place to see whether or not Chambliss, Cherry, Blanton, if there was any connection. At the end of the day though we needed to focus on the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing because the statute of limitations had run on all the other bombings. We were not going to be able to get into those and prosecute anybody because no one was hurt or killed in those bombings. So Chambliss especially was thought to be involved in so many of the bombings that took place in Birmingham and he wore it like a badge of honor. He and Cherry both had been trained in demolitions when they were in the service and bragged about their knowledge of explosives. All of that information came back to haunt them in the Chambliss trial in 1977 and in the Cherry trial in 2002.”
Jones says justice delayed is far better than justice denied.
“I think after this bombing, informants and people that were potential witnesses just shut down. We know when we tried these cases, we didn’t have any DNA evidence, we didn’t have scientific evidence, we relied on the testimony of individuals. And when you can’t get that testimony in the 1960’s you really can’t pursue a case and the Klan shut down. Birmingham had become known as Bombingham because of all of the bombings that were occurring in the black community which became known as Dynamite Hill. But after this bombing and 4 innocent children died, no one would talk about it. Everything shut down and despite an incredible effort by the FBI; they just could not crack the case. Some of the testimony that we were able to use could not have been used in the 1960’s. So it took a long time and it took some admissions on the part of the defendants to talk about it and get comfortable and brag about it, and so things just came together for us some 37-38 years,” said Jones.
Sadly, the families of the other two African American children who were killed on Sept. 15th, 1963 never got that sort of closure.
“Virgil Ware was killed by two juveniles and they were prosecuted in juvenile court, they did not get any jail time. They got it was a probationary sentence, but because they were prosecuted and because they were convicted double jeopardy attached and so there would never be another opportunity to prosecute those. Johnnie Robinson was killed by a police officer and those are very, very difficult cases to bring and impossible to bring in the 1960’s and so unfortunately for those two young men there was never any real sense of justice,” said Jones.
Virgil Ware’s brother Melvin Ware spoke to us last week, as he was preparing for his father’s funeral less than a week from the 50th anniversary of Virgil’s murder.
“The judge comes up and says well these boys got to go to school and they hadn’t, they hadn’t done a minute. Not one. Not one minute,” said Ware. “I’m looking. I guess I’m about as far from here to you and I’m looking at the judge and they … they killed an A student.”
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