Why Did the F.B.I. Hold Back Evidence?
By BILL BAXLEY
May 3, 2001
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. ^ This week, a guilty verdict was
returned against Thomas Blanton for the dynamite bomb
deaths of Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley
and Carole Robertson on Sept. 15, 1963, in a Birmingham
church. In 1977, as Alabama attorney general, I prosecuted
Mr. Blanton's associate Robert Chambliss for the same
crime. It took a long enough time to bring him to trial ^
and far too long, unnecessarily long, to do the same with
Within days of taking office as attorney general in
January 1971, I opened an investigation of these murders.
After a few false starts, my staff and I identified Mr.
Chambliss, Mr. Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry as
principals. These individuals had been identified by the
F.B.I. when the 1963 bombing occurred.
Soon it became clear these men could not be prosecuted
without assistance from the F.B.I. For several years, I
requested, demanded and begged the F.B.I. for evidence.
After we were repeatedly stonewalled, my faith in the
integrity of the F.B.I. dissipated. What had at first
seemed an innocent bureaucratic shuffle was revealed to be
a charade. In exasperation, I shared my frustration with
Jack Nelson, an Alabama native who was then Washington
bureau chief for The Los Angeles Times. He went to
officials at the Justice Department and threatened to
reveal the F.B.I.'s refusal to cooperate with our
investigation. Only then did the F.B.I. share its
We quickly pieced evidence from the F.B.I. together with
our own. A jury of nine whites and three blacks convicted
Mr. Chambliss. He was sent to prison and died there,
Mr. Blanton and Mr. Cherry remained at large; we lacked
evidence as good as that we had had for Mr. Chambliss. I
left government and moved to Birmingham, where I was
reminded daily of my certainty of Mr. Blanton's and Mr.
Cherry's guilt. I hoped someone would come forward with
more evidence. No one did.
In 1997, I learned that Doug Jones, the United States
attorney in Birmingham, whom I knew to be ethical and
highly competent, had opened, once again, investigations
of Mr. Blanton and Mr. Cherry. The two men were indicted ^
and I was astonished to learn that the F.B.I. had tape
recordings of Mr. Blanton from the 1960's that
incriminated both of them. I was also livid. For more than
two decades, Mr. Blanton and Mr. Cherry evaded indictment
and prosecution because the F.B.I. held back these
recordings. This was evidence we desperately needed in
1977 ^ evidence whose existence F.B.I. officials had
denied. Had it been provided in 1977, we could have
convicted all three of these Klansmen.
I held my tongue when I learned of this deception. I did
so to prevent lawyers for Mr. Blanton and Mr. Cherry from
trumpeting the F.B.I.'s dishonesty as a distraction. Mr.
Blanton has been convicted ^ thanks greatly to the new
evidence. Mr. Cherry, due to his alleged mental state, may
not be tried. There is no longer any reason for me to
Why would the F.B.I. aid Klansmen in avoidance of
prosecution? I don't know. I consider myself a practical
person. I could understand F.B.I. reluctance to share
information if it were actively pursuing a case of its
own. But all federal statutes of limitation had expired
when this deceit took place, and only in state court ^
Alabama has no statute of limitations for murder ^ could a
case against Mr. Blanton or Mr. Cherry proceed. (Mr.
Jones, the federal attorney, prosecuted the Blanton case
on Alabama's behalf.) Most of the tape recordings
admissible against Mr. Blanton in 2001 were admissible in
What excuse can the F.B.I. have for allowing Mr. Blanton
to go free for 24 years with this smoking gun evidence
hidden in its files? How can the F.B.I. justify this to
the families of four precious girls? I don't know. I do
know that rank-and-file FBI agents working with us were
conscientious and championed our cause. The disgust I feel
is for those in higher places who did nothing.
Bill Baxley is a former attorney general of Alabama.
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