The order came in response to a request from Justice Department lawyers earlier in the day seeking McNair's release on medical grounds. By evening, McNair had been released from a federal prison hospital in Minnesota, and his attorney was arranging to fly him to Alabama.
The carefully choreographed legal maneuvers came after a quiet, years-long campaign by prominent African Americans and civil rights leaders in support of clemency for McNair. On May 24, his wife made a personal plea to President Obama at an Oval Office signing ceremony for legislation posthumously awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to the four girls, according to others present at the event. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. was also at the White House ceremony. He was deputy attorney general during the Clinton administration, when the federal investigation into the Birmingham church bombing was reopened.
A spokesman for the department said the recommendation to commute McNair's sentence was made by the federal Bureau of Prisons and "based solely" on new federal rules aimed at making it easier for prisoners in declining health to seek early release. More than 30 inmates have applied for similar sentence reductions since some guidelines were first eased in April, and McNair is the seventh to be ordered released since June, according to the department.
Justice officials said that McNair has not been treated differently than other inmates and that the timing of a release during a week commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington was a coincidence.
Officials acknowledged Holder's interest in McNair's situation and said he received at least two updates on the review this summer. After Bureau of Prisons officials concluded a few weeks ago that McNair should be released, the attorney general indicated that he agreed with that decision, one official said.
No pressure from Obama
White House officials said Obama took no steps to influence the review after the conversation with McNair's wife. She was told by White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett that the case would be evaluated through normal Justice Department channels, officials said.
The bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was carried out just weeks after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. made his "I Have a Dream" speech. Eleven-year-old Denise McNair and three 14-year-olds were killed, helping to galvanize national support for the civil rights movement.
McNair a photographer who captured images of King and other black leaders at the height of Birmingham's racial turmoil emerged as an influential local civil rights figure, becoming one of the first African American candidates elected to the Alabama Legislature in modern times. He eventually served as a county commissioner from the 1980s to 2001. During his time in office, the federal investigation into the 1963 bombing was reopened, leading to convictions and imprisonment of two members of the Ku Klux Klan involved in the killings.