Conviction in 1963 Church Bombing

ByABC News

May 1, 2001 -- 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 hewas led out of the courtroom in handcuffs, Blanton was asked if he hadany comment.

"I guess the good Lord will settle it on Judgment Day," hesaid.

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'sall-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, theywould come back with the correct verdict. We believe this isthe 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

Blanton, along with three other Klansmen, had long been suspected of involvement in the bombing, but prosecutors say they never had enough evidence to bring him to trial.

Two years after the bombing, the FBI concluded four men were involved, but authorities closed the case in 1968 without filing any charges.

State prosecutors reopened the case in the late 1970s and one man, Robert "Dynamite Bob" Chambliss, was brought to trial and convicted on state murder charges in 1977. Chambliss, who denied any role in the bombing, died in prison in 1985 while serving a life sentence.

The case was reopened again in 1980 and 1988 but resulted in no additional charges. At the urging of black ministers, the FBI reopened the case in 1997.

Of the four men originally suspected, Chambliss and Herman Cash are dead. Along with Blanton, Bobby Frank Cherry was indicted last year. Among the evidence that helped prosecutors win indictments was the testimony of Cherry's granddaughter, Teresa Stacy, who said she overheard her grandfather talking about the bombing.

Cherry's trial has been delayed while psychiatrists determine whether the 71-year-old is mentally competent to stand trial.

ABC affiliate WIVT in Birmingham contributed to this report.

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