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Ringside at Alabama v. Evil

A supreme court justice encouraged Doug Jones to skip law class for a ringside seat in the courtroom. It steered him to one of the most dramatic prosecutions in Alabama history and a career.

Attorney Doug Jones, with the 16th Street Baptist Church in the background.

Attorney Doug Jones, with the 16th Street Baptist Church in the background.

One by painful one, Alabama attorney general Bill Baxley revealed the gruesome results of pure evil.

The scene was the Birmingham church bombing trial of 1977. Former Ku Klux Klan member Robert Chambliss was charged with placing the explosives that had killed four black girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church during the turbulent Civil Rights year of 1963. In his closing arguments, Baxley quietly placed on the rail in front of the jury the morgue photos of each victim — the faces of four little girls — and then proceeded to plead for a long-delayed moment of justice.

Sitting rapt in the courthouse balcony that day was a young second-year law student named Doug Jones, who had cut class from Samford’s Cumberland School of Law to attend the proceedings. Jones was mesmerized by the moment, enthralled at the emotional drama playing out before him. He had found himself wandering toward a law degree almost by accident, and there were still a few doubts lingering in his mind. Then he watched Baxley’s closing arguments, and those doubts were swiftly swept away.

“I can remember it like it was yesterday. Everything Bill said that day, and that image as I looked down from the balcony, it’s all just absolutely seared in my memory,” Jones says. “It was one of the most dramatic things I’ve seen. Bill was full of emotion. Everybody was. Everybody was tearing up.

“If there is one moment when I knew that I’d made the right call to go into law, it was that moment in that courtroom. Bill Baxley’s closing argument sealed the deal for me. I thought, ‘Wow, this is it. What better thing can you do in life than to be able to do the right thing? To do justice.’ That’s what that moment was all about.”

It was a moment that helped propel Jones to what has become a 34-year law career that includes a stint as U.S. Attorney of the Northern District of Alabama, from 1997 to 2001. He has been involved in a number of high-profile cases over the years, most notably — and, perhaps, appropriately — the convictions in 2001 and 2002 of two other ex-Klansmen involved in the 16th Street bombing: Thomas Blanton and Frank Bobby Cherry.

Jones has since returned to private practice, and on June 1 opened a new firm in Birmingham with longtime friend Greg Hawley. Jones & Hawley PC will focus on commercial, white-collar litigation.

Even though he grew up in the Birmingham suburb of Fairfield in the 1960s, Jones says the Civil Rights issues taking place downtown “seemed like a world away.” Information was not as readily available at that time, media reports not nearly as pervasive. It was not until he reached Fairfield High School in the late 1960s — just as the school was becoming desegregated — that Jones says he truly comprehended the severity of what had taken place earlier in the decade.

“That’s when I realized, ‘Holy cow, this all happened in my community,’” Jones says. “It was pulling that all together and realizing that here I am in a whole new generation of folks who I hope to help lead and be a productive member of the community. That’s what started pulling me toward a law practice. And every year beginning in high school, I got pulled more and more.”

Still, as Jones prepared to enroll at the University of Alabama, he continued to contemplate a career in the medical or dental field. But he says fate seemingly kept pushing him toward law.

“There were just so many subtle things nudging me there,” Jones says. “I made friends with people who were going to go to law school. I become involved with groups that were trying to modernize Alabama’s court system. I had some great mentors who encouraged me. It was just a gradual process.

“And then all of a sudden, about the second year of college I realized, ‘Wait a minute. I need to move away from some of these science classes and into more political science, because law school is really where I need to be.’  That’s where I thought my best use might be.”

In the spring of 1974, during Jones’ junior year at Alabama, U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas was scheduled to speak at the college. Jones was a member of Beta Theta Pi, which had been Douglas’ fraternity at Whitman College. So Jones decided to call Douglas’ office and invite the justice to stop by the fraternity house for a visit before his speech.

“And he did,” Jones says, still sounding surprised nearly 40 years later. “So I got to spend the afternoon with William O. Douglas.

“I asked him what his advice was for a law student who eventually wants to try cases. He said to go watch cases, go watch trials. Don’t try to mimic lawyers, but just learn. He said you’ll get more out of watching good trial lawyers than you will from sitting in a class.”

So when the Birmingham church bombing trial began three years later, Jones remembered what Douglas had told him, and he ditched his classes at Cumberland for a chance to view his chosen profession in action. In the process, he started down a path that would come full circle a quarter-century later.

“It was an incredible experience to be sitting in the balcony for that case, watching the emotion and the drama unfold. It really had an impact on me,” Jones says.

“And that experience was also very important to me with regard to the prosecutions of the church bombing cases in 2001 and 2002 of Blanton and Cherry. I had that personal connection and experience, and that really kept me pushing myself and everybody else to make sure we were successful in those cases.”

Cary Estes is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Birmingham.

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