South Probes Old Cases for New Answers

Reopening Alabama bombing and other cases may be 'fairest' way to atone for past.

On the edge of downtown in this Southern city so important to the civil rights movement stands a simple memorial. Encircling a statue of three ministers kneeling in prayer are four broken columns - one for each of the girls who died in 1963 in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing.

The memorial, built in 1992, was erected to help calm the anger caused by one of the most terrible crimes of the civil rights era. But many black leaders today say that is too much to ask of mere stone and mortar.

To them, the only balm that can really soothe the anguish from this bombing - and a host of other racist crimes from the 1960s - is justice: bringing to trial the men who are believed to have taken part in the bombing but who have never even been arrested.

That could eventually happen. The FBI recently reopened its 16th Street Church investigation. It is one of several cases that, more than a quarter-century after the turbulence of the 1960s, is now being reexamined as part of a new wave of legal actions in the South.

At a time when official attempts to resolve a racist history have been hotly debated - such as President Clinton considering an apology for slavery - black leaders say turning to the courts may be the cleanest and fairest way to atone for an unsettled past.

"Through the courts, there's a sense, not so much of vengeance, but of accountability," says Dan Carter, professor of history at Emory University in Atlanta. "There are parallels to the Jewish community seeking trials of Nazi war criminals. In both, justice was delayed a long time, but better delayed than denied."

There are dangers in reopening old investigations, though. In some instances, reopening a case can revive old tensions. It can actually feed the conspiracy-theory mill rather than lay lingering doubts to rest, Professor Carter notes. The push for a new trial in the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. seems to be a case in point.

Revisiting King

The King family has received much publicity for their recent attempt to get a trial for James Earl Ray, the man in prison for assassinating King.

That case is more controversial than most, because, unlike most civil rights era crimes, the King murder was immediately resolved.

A killer pleaded guilty, and when questions of a larger conspiracy arose in the 1970s, a federal commission spent $2.5 million to track down every lead - including those reported in tabloid newspapers such as the National Enquirer.

James Earl Ray's most recent attempt to land a new trial has been surrounded by a circus-like atmosphere. Motions have been filed in three different courts. Two judges in Memphis are bickering over jurisdiction.

The King family, which has supported a new trial for Mr. Ray in hope of setting to rest all unanswered questions, is not even commenting on the case until its direction becomes more clear.

Even Ray's ex-wife has come forward to criticize the possibility of a new trial. She says Ray is trying to stay in the public eye to capitalize on a movie deal.

While some new evidence has arisen - the doctor who cared for King after he was shot has come forward saying he has always had doubts that King was struck with only one bullet, for instance - nothing has been conclusive.

"The trial of Ray is not going to air all these questions people have about conspiracy theories," says John Campbell, the assistant district attorney and Ray's prosecutor.

"Very little new would come out in a trial. Probably a lot less than people think."

Some wonder, too, if reinvestigating and restaging trials are the best use of public resources.

"In some ways, these civil rights era cases are symbolic. They don't really deal with the problems of race in our society today," Carter says.

"Far more important than bringing other culprits to justice in a 1963 bombing is figuring out why such a large percentage of our young black males are in jail, for example."

Successful cases

But in other instances, retrying old cases can have a powerful, positive effect.

In 1994, Assistant District Attorney Bobby DeLaughter brought to trial Byron De La Beckworth for the 1963 murder of Mississippi's NAACP field office director Medgar Evers.

After two earlier trials and two hung juries, this jury convicted Mr. De La Beckworth of killing Mr. Evers.

"It's been just like the lid off of a pressure cooker being taken off," Mr. DeLaughter says.

"This assassination was the type of thing that inflicted a wound on society as a whole," he says. "Until it got resolved, it was just going to keep festering."

The guilty verdict in the trial sent the important message to the country that Mississippi was shedding its racist past, DeLaughter says.

"This was a closure for Mississippi as well as for the Evers family and black community," he says. "It goes a long way toward showing that we really do value human life here and that we are not a state of racist rednecks."

Today, at least three other, less celebrated civil rights murders are being looked into in addition to the 16th Street Church and the King killing.

Hope in Birmingham

In Birmingham, the black community has heralded the FBI's announcement this summer that it has officially reopened the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing case.

Though one person is serving time for his participation in the explosion - Robert Chambliss was convicted after the case was reopened in 1977 - four others are suspected.

It galls those who lost a loved one that those suspects are still living free, unpunished for their crime.

"A new trial does not erase what happened," says the Rev. Christopher Hamlin, today's head minister at the 16th Street Church.

"But it does say you can't get away with committing hate crimes," he says. "The more convictions you get, the stronger the message. It says that people who commit heinous hate crimes even 30 years later will be caught and will be prosecuted.

"It says that even though justice is sometimes slow, it inevitably will win."

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