Church Bombing Trial Verdict Depends on How Jurors Hear Old Tapes

An FBI tape recording played for a jury Saturday in a church bombing trial showed a former Ku Klux Klansman saying police wouldn't catch him "when I bomb my next church."

The tape, among several secretly recorded 35 years ago, was played in the trial of Thomas Blanton Jr. He is charged with murder in the Sept. 15, 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that killed four young girls, one of the most notorious crimes of the civil rights era.

Jurors began listening to the tapes Friday.

On Saturday, jurors heard tapes made while Blanton, 62, was riding around Birmingham in a 1956 Chevy with Klansman and FBI informant Mitchell Burns, who was recruited by the FBI to spend time with Blanton following the bombing.

Burns, now 73, testified Saturday that he rode around with Blanton for a couple of years while the FBI recorded their conversations. On one tape, Blanton is heard saying: "They ain't gonna catch me when I bomb my next church."

Referring to the September bombing, Burns was heard asking: "How did you do that, Tommy?"

Blanton replied: "It wasn't easy. I tell you."

Parts of the tape played Saturday were clear and parts were very hard to understand.

Burns said he only vaguely knew Blanton, but agreed to cooperate with the FBI after an agent showed him photos of the bombing victims — Denise McNair, 11, and Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, all 14.

The FBI had also hid a listening device in Blanton's kitchen after the bombing.

Circuit Judge James Garrett ruled Friday that jurors would get to hear about 15 of the 20 tapes of Blanton and Burns that prosecutors had sought to introduce.

Defense attorney John Robbins claims the tapes are unintelligible and don't reflect the context of the conversations, including the ones heard Friday.

"You've all heard it and each one of you has come up with something different," Robbins said after the tapes were replayed for the news media.

On the tape played Friday, Blanton can be heard twice uttering the phrase "plan a bomb" or "plan the bomb."

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.

Robbins fought hard to keep the jury from hearing the tape, arguing it shouldn't have been allowed because such recordings were not permitted as evidence in 1963, when the bombing occurred.

The judge sided with prosecutor Doug Jones, who contended that a change in the law in 1968 made the tape admissible.

Blanton is the second person put on trial in the bombing. Former Klansman Robert 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.