Doug Jones, the Democratic Senate candidate in Alabama, made his name as a U.S. attorney in the late 1990s when he successfully prosecuted two members of the Ku Klux Klan for the notorious 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church that killed four black girls.
The two men were convicted in cases that drew national attention; Bobby Frank Cherry died in prison 2004; Thomas Blanton remains incarcerated on a life sentence.
So it came as a surprise to many that President Trump attacked the aspiring senator as “soft on crime.”
“I can tell you for a fact we do not need somebody that’s going to be bad on crime, bad on borders, bad with the military,” Trump said in a brief statement to reporters in which he seemed to tacitly endorse Republican candidate Roy Moore. “You don’t need somebody who’s soft on crime like Jones.”
The criticism echoed long-running Republican talking points about Democrats. But some said that the attack rang particularly hollow given both Jones’s record as the U.S. attorney in Alabama as well as the accusations of sexual misconduct toward teenage women that have swirled around Moore for the past few weeks.
MSNBC host Chris Hayes summed up many of the reactions when he tweeted incredulously about the remark.
“So Doug Jones, a lifelong prosecutor who convicted the monsters that murdered four little girls is ‘soft on crime,’ but Roy Moore, the district attorney alleged to have molested a child and sexually assaulted a 16yo is not?” he wrote. “Got it.”
Hayes added: “Maybe when the president talks about ‘crime’ he’s not actually talking about crime, but something else entirely.”
Renato Mariotti, a Democrat and a former federal prosecutor in Illinois, pointed out the famous Birmingham case.
“I guess Trump doesn’t care about that kind of crime, so he’s supporting a man who molested little girls,” he wrote.
Moore has vigorously denied the allegations, with his campaign casting the accusations as a “political farce” drummed up by his enemies.
“Ironically, Jones had a tough on crime track record,” wrote Joyce White Vance, the U.S. attorney in Birmingham during the Obama administration. She cited cases he worked on against Eric Rudolph, who was convicted in 2001 for bombing an Alabama abortion clinic, as well as others she said targeted voter fraud, corrupt police and drug dealers.
“Moore on the other hand, often sided with defendants,” she wrote, citing a New York Times report that showed how Moore, as an Alabama Supreme Court judge, sided with those accused of sexual crimes or misconduct more than his colleagues and showed empathy for defendants in other cases.
Others have pointed out Moore’s record of ignoring court orders as a judge, related to his infamous display of a statue of the Ten Commandments in a state building, as well as a decision as chief justice of the state in 2013 to reportedly direct probate judges to uphold the state’s same-sex marriage ban in defiance of a Supreme Court ruling.
For Jones, the Birmingham bombing case features prominently on his campaign website bio.
Years in the making, the Ku Klux Klan case was well in progress by the time Jones was appointed to the U.S. attorney post by President Bill Clinton in 1997.
In his opening remarks in Blanton’s case in 2001, Jones sought to bring jurors back to a darker time in the city’s history when it had earned the nickname Bombingham and a reputation for racial brutality.
“'When the bomb went off the clock stopped and time for Birmingham stood still,”' Mr. Jones said, according to a New York Times report from the trial.
The explosion “sounded like the whole world was shaking,” recalled Rev. John Haywood Cross, according to court documents, blowing plaster off the walls and peeling the face off the image of Jesus in a stained-glass window.
A key piece of evidence included a surveillance tape played for the jury of Blanton telling his wife where he had done the planning for the bombing: the area under a bridge where a local group of Klansmen met. Blanton was convicted in 2001.
Cherry was convicted the next year, with a case Jones built on testimony from family members, including one of Cherry’s ex-wives, and one of his granddaughters, who testified that he once said that he had “helped blow up a bunch of n — s back in Birmingham.”
“The people of the state of Alabama proved for the second time in about a year that justice delayed does not have to be justice denied,” Jones said at the time.
Earlier this month, Jones called prosecuting the Klansmen “the most important thing I have done.”
DeNeen L. Brown contributed to this report.