May 5, 2001 -- Thomas Blanton is finally going to prison — a life sentence he avoided for almost four decades.
Alabama's former attorney general says he could have put Blanton away 24 years ago if he'd only had access to secretly recorded tapes of Blanton talking to his wife about "the meeting to plan a bomb." The tapes were sitting in the FBI's files.
"If we had had those tapes we would have unequivocally been able to convict Blanton back then," former Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley said.
Help of Reporter Turned Case Around
Baxley wanted to try the four suspected bombers in 1977. But he needed the FBI's evidence and he says he wasn't getting it. So he enlisted the help of a reporter.
"I had dinner with Bill Baxley over across the street from the Washington bureau of the L.A. Times and he pulled out of his wallet a crumbled piece of paper with the names of these four little girls on it," said Los Angeles Times reporter Jack Nelson. "Then he told me at that time 'I'm going to get the guys that did this,' and he said, 'but I need help.'"
"He went over the FBI's head to the Department of Justice and told the Attorney General that he was going to expose them for blocking a prosecution," Baxley said.
Baxley says the threat got him enough evidence to convict one of the bombers — the ring leader Robert Chambliss. But Baxley didn't know at the time that he didn't get everything in the FBI files, including the Blanton tapes.
"I believe the FBI office here in Birmingham, during the time of the investigation in 1977, did not know of the existence of those tapes," said Charlene Thornton, Birmingham's FBI director."We did not withhold information."
But the FBI acknowledges, at the height of the civil rights struggle in the 60s, the FBI had little faith in Southern law enforcement.
"I recognize that, in years past, they had valid reasons to not trust deep-South law enforcement," Baxley said. "So I spent a lot of time trying to convince them that that wasn't the case with us."
Have Things Changed in Deep South?
The federal prosecutor who finally convicted Blanton this year says things have changed.
"Today's FBI is far different than it was," said U.S. Attorney Doug Jones. "The guys deserve all the credit for helping to bring this case, knowing that they would probably take some criticism for what their agency did years ago."
Baxley says the bottom line is: justice was unnecessarily delayed.
"The FBI for all intents and purposes gave a 'get out of jail free card' to Tommy Blanton," Baxley said.
Of the other suspects, Herman Cash died in 1994. The fourth suspect, Bobby Frank Cherry, has been indicted but ruled mentally unfit to stand trial.