Former Klan member jailed for US church bombing

A former member of the Ku Klux Klan was found guilty of first-degree murder yesterday for killing four black girls in the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham, Alabama church, one of the most heinous crimes of the civil rights era.

Thomas Blanton Jr., 62, was immediately sentenced to life in prison after a jury of eight whites and four blacks found him guilty on four counts of murder in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on Sept. 15, 1963.

"I guess the good Lord will settle sentence on Judgment Day," Blanton, who had denied any involvement in the bombing, said after the verdict was read and as a judge prepared to hand down the sentence in a Birmingham courtroom.

Blanton was then whisked out of court in handcuffs.

The verdict, which came just two-and-a-half hours after jurors began deliberations, was quietly celebrated by prosecutors as well as friends and family members of the four victims.

Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Addie Mae Collins, all aged 14, and Denise McNair, 11, died in the blast, which occurred during a time when thousands of blacks were protesting in the streets against Birmingham's strict segregation laws.

"Justice delayed is still justice, and we've got it right here in Birmingham tonight," said U.S.

Attorney Doug Jones, who tried the case under a special agreement with local authorities.

Prosecutors had alleged Blanton was part of a hard-core group of Klansmen that planted the dynamite that exploded under a stairwell of the church, a meeting place for civil rights protesters.

During closing arguments earlier yesterday, prosecutors again played for the jury secretly taped FBI recordings of conversations Blanton had with his wife in 1964 in which he allegedly admitted to planting the bomb.

They also reminded jurors that Blanton had boasted about bombing the church to a Klansman-turned-FBI-informant, and bragged that he would never be caught.

"We felt that if the jury pieced the puzzle together, they would come back with the correct verdict," Jones said.

Defence attorney John Robbins, who had expressed fears throughout the 16-day trial that jurors would be swayed by the intense emotions surrounding the case, said he planned to appeal Blanton's conviction.

"Somebody may have another opinion, but I feel this was an emotional vote," said Robbins, who noted that the forewoman of the jury had broken down while reading the verdict. Last month, Robbins failed in his bid to move the trial out of Birmingham.

In his closing argument, Robbins argued that prosecutors had misinterpreted the meaning of the taped conversations, which he said only proved that Blanton was "a racist, a segregationist and a bad man."

Robbins, who had tried to bar the tapes from the trial, also said there was no evidence directly linking Blanton to the bombing, and questioned the credibility of several prosecution witnesses.

Blanton's conviction, however, was quickly hailed as a victory for the civil rights movement in the South and for a new generation of prosecutors interested in re-opening investigations into unsolved civil rights era crimes.

"This city and this nation are better today because of this verdict. We see these (civil rights) cases being taken up all over Alabama and Mississippi," said Danny Ransom, 49, a former classmate of Denise McNair, the youngest bombing victim.

"I am very happy with this verdict, but I believe that there are other people who participated in this crime. But at least one has been convicted, and that's something," said 73-year old Estelle Boyd, a member of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.

An alleged accomplice, Bobby Frank Cherry, 71, had been set to stand trial as a co-defendant with Blanton, but his case was postponed indefinitely due to his failing health.

Prosecutors have not ruled out bringing Cherry to trial, pending results of a psychological evaluation.

Before Blanton's conviction, Robert "Dynamite Bob" Chambliss, was the only person ever prosecuted for the crime. Chambliss was convicted of murder in 1977, and died in prison in 1985 while serving a life sentence. Another suspect, Herman Cash, died several years later without being charged.

Blanton was not put on trial earlier because authorities, including former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, apparently did not believe convictions could be obtained with circumstantial evidence and a racially polarized Birmingham jury.

Some in the city were still questioning yesterday whether it was right to try Blanton for the crime in Birmingham. "This was a politically correct verdict," said one caller to a local radio station.

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