A former Ku Klux Klansman was convicted today in the 1963 bombing of an Alabama church that killed four black girls.
Thomas Blanton Jr., 62, was convicted of four counts of first-degree murder in the Sept. 15, 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Blanton was sentenced to life in prison.
The jury of eight whites and four blacks announced their verdict after only 2½ hours of deliberations. Before he was led out of the courtroom in handcuffs, Blanton was asked if he had any comment.
"I guess the good Lord will settle it on Judgment Day," he said.
The blast occurred at the height of the civil rights movement, as church members were gathering for Sunday services. Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Addie Mae Collins, all 14, and Denise McNair, 11, were killed.
At the time of the bombing, blacks were integrating Birmingham's all-white schools and Gov. George Wallace was trying to maintain the status quo, proclaiming, "Segregation, segregation forever." The church was a gathering site for protest marches and young people who participated in the demonstrations.
Defense Blames Verdict on Emotions
Blanton's attorney, John Robbins, said he knew the quickness of the deliberations was not a good sign for his client and felt that jurors based their verdict primarily on the emotions stirred by the case and their need to avenge the girls' deaths.
"The girls will always be a monument to freedom and justice," Robbins said. "But justice doesn't mean convicting somebody just so we feel good about ourselves. They made the assumption, 'We know who did the bombing, let's find out why.' That's not a trial. … That's not a contest."
Robbins said he would appeal the conviction and cite, among other things, the judge's decision not to move the trial outside of Birmingham.
Prosecutors, however, were elated with the verdict and hoped the victims' families would be able to feel some closure.
"We felt that if the jury pieced the puzzle together, they would come back with the correct verdict. We believe this is the correct verdict," U.S. Attorney Doug Jones said.
Key Bombing Tapes
The key evidence prosecutors presented during six days of testimony was secret FBI tape recordings by a former Klansman-turned-FBI informant Mitchell Burns, who befriended and secretly taped conversations in Blanton's kitchen and in the mid-1960s when the two were driving and drinking around Birmingham.
On one of the tapes, Blanton is heard saying he would not be caught "when I bomb my next church." On another tape, Blanton describes himself to Burns as a clean-cut individual who likes to go shooting, go fishing and "go bombing."
A former girlfriend of Blanton also testified he did not like blacks and that she saw him frequently try to intimidate them.
"The defendant didn't care who he killed as long as he killed someone and as long as that person was black," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Posey in his closing arguments.
Blanton did not testify at the trial and insisted he was innocent. Defense attorney Robbins presented only two witnesses, accusing prosecutors of taking Blanton's recorded words out of context and arguing the tapes were often too hard to understand. The prosecution, he said, proved his client was a foulmouthed racist but had not proved he actually placed the bomb at the church.
40-Year Road to Trial