Jones discusses his work prosecuting the suspects in the re-opened case of the ’63 church bombing in Birmingham, AL that killed four girls and the curious case that he’s now involved in with the father of one of those little girls.
Former U.S. attorney Douglas Jones
Tavis: Doug Jones is a former U.S. attorney who helped bring about justice in one of the country’s most heinous crimes – the 1963 bombing of a church in Birmingham that of course took the lives of four precious little girls.
Now in private practice, Doug Jones currently represents the father of one of those four little girls, Chris McNair. Despite his standing in the community, McNair is now serving a five-year federal prison term on bribery charges. Doug Jones has asked President Obama to intervene on his client’s behalf. Mr. Jones joins us tonight from Birmingham. Doug, good to have you on this program. Thanks for your time, sir.
Douglas Jones: Thanks for having me, Tavis, it’s great to be with you.
Tavis: I’m going to get to the curious case of Chris McNair and how the father of one of these four little girls, and his daughter happened to be the youngest of the four girls killed that day; the other three were 14.
Denise McNair was only 11. Her father goes on, after having to endure all of that pain, goes on to become a great leader in the community, and how now he’s sitting behind federal prison bars for five years is, in fact, a curious case. We’ll get to that in a second.
Let me go back, though, to your prosecuting this case some years ago now, 2001, to be specific, that did, in fact, bring some justice in the case of these four girls killed in that church. Tell me about the case, how you brought that case back to the courtroom 40 years later, and we’ll get into how you got to know the McNair family, I presume, in the prosecuting of that case.
Jones: Tavis, it was just an incredible experience to work with a team of investigators and prosecutors who were dedicated to trying to right a wrong. You don’t get really too many opportunities to do that in your life, and we had that opportunity here.
There were a lot of events that occurred that allowed us to open it up, take another look at the case. The FBI began the investigation. Two investigators just did a phenomenal job, and it took a while. We had a number of issues that we had to overcome here in Birmingham. The time, people were dying, people were aged.
But at the end of the day it took moving the case over to the state. I was U.S. attorney, but my boss, Janet Reno, allowed this case to be prosecuted in state court under state murder charges, of which there is no statute of limitations. So we pulled together two cases.
Tommy Blanton was convicted, Bobby Frank Cherry was convicted, and we took a lot of the old evidence that we had and repackaged it for a new jury, a new day in Birmingham, a new city, a whole new group of Black and white, young and old, who were going to be sitting in judgment of these men, and Bobby Frank Cherry, the same way. Cherry had made a lot of admissions.
We just took those cases and we just had such a good group that was relentless, and we had such support of this community and the people surrounding this entire case, both Black and white, in Birmingham.
Tavis: Is justice delayed justice denied?
Jones: Well, I think, Tavis, it’s interesting. I looked one time to try to figure out where that actually came from, and I think the original saying was something more along like that there is injustice in a delay, and there’s a little bit difference.
I think there is some injustice in a delay, but at the end of the day it was not denied in this case. There was justice. There was final justice.
Tommy Blanton is still in prison today, Bobby Frank Cherry died in an Alabama prison after having been convicted. So while there was some injustice in the delay itself, quite frankly, that injustice worked to our advantage. Had this case been tried in the 1960s, the odds are that they could have never gotten a conviction on the evidence.
People change, things change. Birmingham changed for the much better, and because of that, justice was able to finally be achieved. So at the end of the day, just like I said, it is not denied in this case. Justice delayed did not mean justice denied here for these families and for the people of Birmingham.
Tavis: For years now – and I think they would consider me a friend, I certainly consider them friends – for years now I’ve known the McNair family, Chris and his wife, Maxine, and I said to Spike Lee in person any number of times that I think the best work that Spike has ever done ever was the documentary on the four little girls.
I know, or at least assume, that when you were prosecuting Mr. Cherry and Mr. Blanton you got to know the McNair family well, as you got to know the families of all of these victims. Tell me about the start of your relationship with the McNair family.
Jones: Well, Tavis, my relationship with Chris and Maxine goes back long before this case. It goes back to the 1970s, when I was in college and Chris was a member of the Alabama legislature. I got to know him then. He was actually my state representative when I was growing up and throughout law school, and I worked with him on a number of campaigns over the years, both for the county commission for his run for Congress, for his run for the U.S. Senate at one time.
They’re just incredible people. They’re just wonderful people. That relationship obviously took a whole different turn when I became the United States attorney. This case had already been opened up and I took control of it to try to bring this case to justice in between.
Maxine and Chris, they’re the kind of people that had this abiding faith in the system, that sooner or later justice would prevail. It took a long time, but all of these families were the same way. I got to know them on a very, very personal level during the course of this case, as I did with the other families in this case.
They were there every day at the trial; they never spoke out except when they felt like it was appropriate. Chris never used this case, I think, to his political advantage.
They were just there, lending their quiet support, and it was very meaningful to have them sitting there on the front row every day in both of the cases involving Blanton and Cherry.
Tavis: Before we get to the big question, which is coming right now, about how it is and why it is that Chris McNair, icon in this community, is sitting now behind bars in federal prison, one final precursor, which is how, given what he endured with his daughter being killed, he’s still in Alabama.
He decides to stay in Birmingham, and through some process, obviously, he goes on to be at least respected enough by the voters in the state of Alabama and in Birmingham specifically to be elected to office time and time again.
Tell me about his own personal journey and how he navigated that, given what had happened to his daughter in this very community.
Jones: Tavis, that’s probably the most interesting and ultimately the most tragic part of this whole story. Instead of leaving, instead of running away from Alabama – he was from Arkansas originally and could have easily left the state after what happened to Denise. Denise was his only daughter at the time.
But instead, he turned all of that anger toward trying to do something positive. This was in 1963. His daughter was killed just months after the children’s marches in Birmingham, with the fire hoses and the dogs. Instead of turning and running or just being an angry man, Chris turned his attention to trying to heal the sounds and make this city a better city, make this community a better community.
He reached out not only as a leader of the Black community; he reached out to the white business leaders, the white community, and was one of those rare individuals in the 1960s that could bridge that gap without alienating in any way.
He had this persona and presence about him that was open, it was friendly, it was transparent, and he was able to bridge that gap when no one else could do that. What he did was to look at the business leaders, he ran for the legislature.
He was tapped in the early 1970s, just a decade after all of the problems in Birmingham, to lead the team that made the city an all-American city, and that got his attention with the voters and people that respected him, and once he became a member of the legislature, once he became a member of the county commission, he continued to do that. He worked with all segments.
He truly was a representative not just of the Black community in Birmingham but from all of Birmingham and all of Jefferson County, and it’s just his persona. You just have to know Chris, and you do know him. You know him well. He’s got that booming voice, even at age 85 now. He’s still got that strong voice, and it’s the kind of voice that people just flock to whenever he speaks.
Tavis: So to your point now, how, at 85 years of age, does a civil rights icon like Chris McNair find himself sitting behind bars in federal prison for five years, which could be – I’m no math major – until he’s 90 years old. How did this happen?
Jones: Tavis, this is a classic case of triumph that follows tragedy that ends up in tragedy again. In the twilight of his career as a county commissioner, Chris was seen to have taken a lot of what the government termed as bribes. What a jury found, quite frankly, to be bribes.
What he was doing was trying to renovate a studio, a very historic spot here in Birmingham, his photography studio has been in the same spot for 40 or 50 years, renovate that to leave as a legacy for himself, for his family, for Denise, the memorial room.
In doing so, unfortunately, there were a lot of contractors that were doing business with the county of which he was a commissioner, on our sewer system. They did a lot of work personally for the studio, contributed a lot of work. There was also some cash that was given to help pay for these renovations. It was several hundred thousand dollars.
I truly believe that in one sense, Chris didn’t really realize or didn’t think that this was a crime. These were his friends. He also was only one of four or five votes on the county commission.
But at the end of the day, the rule of law prevails. What he did was wrong, and we tried one case, he was found guilty by a jury, again, Black and white, young and old, and he pled guilty to another count and received a five-year sentence.
The judge could have done more, could have done less, but at the end of the day he had five years, just recently started serving that five-year sentence because of the appeals that occurred over the course of two or three years.
Tavis: What is his physical condition right now at 85 years of age, and where, specifically, is he being housed for this sentence?
Jones: Chris is 85. He’ll turn 86 in November of this year. His health is not good. After the time he was convicted, really in between the time he was sentenced, in the time he served he had a minor stroke, had gone to a family farm in Arkansas with a cousin, ended up having a stroke and ended up stranded on the side of the road in Oklahoma before family had the police involved and found him and got him back to Birmingham.
He’s doing okay, but he suffers from diabetes, he has cardiovascular problems, he suffers from sleep apnea. He has all sorts of disorders that frankly are just not uncommon for an 86-year-old man.
Overall, he’s doing okay, he’s stable. He is currently in Marion, Illinois, at a federal prison camp, although I got word just this morning that he is being transferred even farther away from home to a facility in Rochester, Minnesota. That’s kind of a good news, bad news for us; the facility, as I understand it, in Minnesota is more of a medical facility that can take care of his needs as they arise.
On the other hand, it puts him that much farther away from his family, from his wife, who’s 83 or 84 and also in very difficult health. So for his physical standpoint it’s probably a very good thing, but from his emotional standpoint, which there are issues involving his cognitive ability as well, it’s probably not going to be a good thing that he is moving to Minnesota, and that much farther from home.
Tavis: As his lawyer, and you admitted in this conversation already, and I’m paraphrasing, that the jury really had no choice based upon the facts that were presented to them, never mind their respect and their regard for Mr. McNair. They had to find him guilty, given what the letter of the law says.
I raise that to ask when, if and how Mr. McNair ever came to terms with his own guilt, and how you as his lawyer represented him in a courtroom where you had to know that the jury, based on the evidence, might find him guilty – never mind how they felt about him personally.
Jones: Well, it was one of those situations, Tavis, where it was a crime of intent, and you can always, as defense lawyers, try cases of intent when there were so many other mitigating factors that we were able to show in court – the relationship between Chris and the contractors that went back years and years, even with one of the contractors, two of them that got convicted with their father, very close relationships.
Which also really said something about Chris McNair as a man. All of these contractors were white, and he had developed this close relationship over many, many years. We also were able to show that all of this was going not into anything that was personal. He was not living a lavish lifestyle.
This was going into a business that was going to ultimately be for the community, for this memorial to his daughter, a place where the community could come, have functions.
So there was not as much personal benefit. But I also knew that at the end of the day, Chris McNair’s heart was right and we’ve had a lot of talks since that time. I’ve told him, I said, “Chris, if you’d only talked to me ahead of time we could have done this in a different way. We could have formed a charitable foundation of some time, had all of these donations to do these things for the community,” which is what, I hope, the studio will end up being now anyway.
So he’s come to grips with that. He’s come to grips with the fact that what he did was seen by the community as corrupt, he’s come to grips with the fact that his legacy has been tainted, but at the end of the day, when it came time for him to serve, I drove him up to a federal prison, he got out of the car, and he ambled into that federal prison to take his punishment.
We’re just hoping now that he has been convicted, that he has started to serve some time, that somebody above everyone’s pay grade that’s been involved in this can look at this and just say, You know what? The rule of law prevails. It has prevailed. He was convicted.
But yet we are a merciful society and this man deserves a little mercy, not because his daughter was killed in a heinous crime, but for what he did afterwards and what he’s shown for this community and for the world about how we can try to heal the racial wounds that have so divided the country over the years.
Tavis: Illinois is a good distance from Alabama, to your point; Minnesota an even farther distance from Alabama. How often has Maxine, Mrs. McNair, been able to see him since he’s been incarcerated?
Jones: His brother has been up there a couple of times. I talked to his brother this morning. He’s been up there a couple times. He has a little bit more freedom. Maxine and his two daughters have only been up there once, and I’m not sure when will be the next time they get to now that he’s moved to Minnesota.
I haven’t even had a chance to get up there. I talked to him by phone the other day. But the farther you get the more difficult it is to get family and friends, and for anyone who’s ever had clients that have gone to prison, federal or state prison, they’ll tell you that one of the most critical factors to their well-being is the visitations, that contact from their family and friends, and not just the letters and the cards that they get, but the physical contact.
The being able to sit down and see somebody and talk to them one to one, face-to-face. It’s so important, and that is just going to be far in between now.
Tavis: So why not incarcerate him in a federal prison in Alabama, or put another way, is there no federal prison in Alabama?
Jones: Well, there is. There’s actually two federal prison camps in Alabama, one in Montgomery and one in Talladega, and I don’t know what-all the formula that was used by the Bureau of Prisons to designate him first to Illinois. I understand that as long as he is within 500 miles they’ve met their guidelines.
I talked to the prison the other day and they had put in for a medical transfer for him very shortly after he got into Illinois, and I want to make sure, Tavis, I say this – they’ve been great to deal with, to work with.
They’ve treated him fairly; they’ve treated him very nice. I think they’re concerned about his welfare, and there are not many federal medical facilities that are really right there and focus on medical issues within the federal system. Remember, Rochester is where the Mayo Clinic is, I think, and so I think they have, out of a true concern for his mental and physical well-being, put him at a very good medical facility.
Tavis: There is, of course, the court of law, and there is, obviously, the court of public opinion. The jury had its say in the case. How is Chris McNair regarded, you think – I know this is an impossible question; you’ve not done polling on this, I suspect – but how is Chris McNair regarded now? How is he regarded now in Birmingham, Alabama?
Jones: Tavis, I think it’s a mixed bag, candidly. I think people were, at the very core, have been just very, very disappointed in Chris. Many will believe he’s getting exactly what he deserved, but there’s also so many more that while they understand and they know the jury’s verdict, absolutely believe he deserves some mercy in this case, and that at age 85 and 86 years old doesn’t need to end his final days in a federal prison.
Tavis: So you have asked the administration, the White House administration, the Obama administration, not for pardon but for clemency. For those who don’t know the distinction between the two – I had to learn it myself – what is a pardon and what is clemency, and why have you asked for the latter and not the former?
Jones: Well, a pardon would just simply wipe out the conviction altogether, and would say that – it would be like never convicted. Clemency is just basically saying look, there was a conviction. The rule of law has prevailed. But at the end of the day, there are other mitigating factors that would mitigate in favor of this man being released and not serving his days out in a federal prison.
Clemency would just really allow him to get out of prison, to commute his sentence to time served and allow him to get back out with his family. That’s all we’ve asked for, and that was Chris’s request. He did not want to say or do anything to this community that would indicate that he’s not accepted responsibility for what he did.
But his lawyers and others have simply said to the president that look at the whole history, don’t look at just the conviction. Look at his entire history, especially from 1963 on, and see that this man deserves the mercy. He forgave everyone after the death of his daughter, and it’s not too much to ask that we maybe forgive him for his transgressions as well.
Tavis: Do you have any sense of where your clemency petition is at the moment?
Jones: I really don’t. I believe that the Justice Department that I know, and they’ve also been great to work with and talk to me that the point that they can, I believe they’ve completed their work and it’s probably at the White House, where it may or may not be there for a long time.
It’s been at the White House once, even under President Bush. It went back to the Justice Department. So I think now it’s really kind of in the hands of White House counsel and the Obama administration to take a look at this, to weigh the merits and to see how this fits within what they see as balancing the rule of law with mercy. We always need to temper it that way.
Tavis: Doug Jones is an icon to many in the state of Alabama. If you go to Birmingham to the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum there’s an entire exhibit, a permanent exhibit, about how he methodically, he and his team, constructed this case to put Mr. Cherry and Mr. Blanton behind bars for killing these four little girls back in 1963, and now, tragically, he represents the father of one of those girls, who sits tonight behind federal prison bars, Chris McNair.
Doug, thank you for coming on to share the story with us, and thank you for the work that you’re doing. Good to have you on this program.
Jones: Great, Tavis, thank you.
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