Jury convicts ex-Klansman in deadly 1963 church bombing
Tuesday, May 1st 2001, 12:00 am
News On 6
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) _ A former Ku Klux Klansman was convicted of murder Tuesday for the 1963 church bombing that killed four black girls, the deadliest single attack during the civil rights movement.
Thomas Blanton Jr., 62, was sentenced to life in prison by the same jury that found him guilty after just 2 1/2 hours of deliberations. Before he was led out of the courtroom in handcuffs, he was asked if he had any comment.
``I guess the good Lord will settle it on judgment day,'' he said.
Blanton is the second former Klansman to be convicted of planting the bomb that went off at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on Sept. 15, 1963, a Sunday morning.
The bomb ripped through an exterior wall of the brick church. The bodies of Denise McNair, 11, and Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, all 14, were found in the downstairs lounge.
Denise's parents, Chris and Maxine McNair, were in the front row of the mostly empty courtroom when the verdict was read. They did not comment as they left the courthouse.
The Rev. Abraham Woods, a black minister instrumental in getting the FBI to reopen the case in 1993, said he was delighted with the verdict.
``It makes a statement on how far we've come,'' said Woods, the local president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Defense attorney John Robbins said the swift verdict showed the jury was caught up in the emotion surrounding the notorious case. He said he would seek a new trial, arguing the case should have been moved out of Birmingham and Blanton's right to a speedy trial had been violated.
He also said the lack of white men on the jury _ eight white women, three black women and one black man returned the verdict _ ``absolutely hurt Blanton.''
The case is the latest from the turbulent civil rights era to be revived by prosecutors. Byron De La Beckwith was convicted in 1994 of assassinating civil rights leader Medgar Evers in 1963 and former Klan imperial wizard Sam Bowers was convicted three years ago of the 1966 firebomb-killing of an NAACP leader.
But the church bombing was a galvanizing moment of the civil rights movement. Moderates could no longer remain silent and the fight to topple segregation laws gained new momentum.
During closing arguments, U.S. Attorney Doug Jones told the jury that it was ``never too late for justice.''
He said Blanton acted in response to months of civil rights demonstrations. The church had become a rallying point for protesters.
``Tom Blanton saw change and didn't like it,'' Jones said as black-and-white images of the church and the girls dressed in Sunday clothing flashed on video screens in the courtroom.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Posey added: ``The defendant didn't care who he killed as long as he killed someone and as long as that person was black.''
``These children must not have died in vain,'' he said. ``Don't let the deafening blast of his bomb be what's left ringing in our ears.''
Robbins argued that the government had proved only that Blanton was once a foul-mouthed segregationist, not a bomber. He said murky tapes of his client secretly recorded by the FBI were illegally obtained and should not have been admitted as evidence.
The surveillance began after Blanton and other Klansman were identified as suspects within weeks of the bombing.
The FBI planted a hidden microphone in Blanton's apartment in 1964 and taped his conversations with Mitchell Burns, a fellow Klansman-turned-informant.
Posey went over the tapes for jurors, putting transcript excerpts on the video screens. He read from one transcript in which Blanton described himself to Burns as a clean-cut guy: ``I like to go shooting, I like to go fishing, I like to go bombing.''
Posey also quoted Blanton as saying he was through with women. ``I am going to stick to bombing churches,'' Blanton said, according to Posey.
On one tape, Blanton was heard telling Burns that he would not be caught ``when I bomb my next church.'' On another made in his kitchen, he is heard talking with his wife about a meeting where ``we planned the bomb.''
``That is a confession out of this man's mouth,'' said Jones, pointing to Blanton.
The defense argued that the tape made in Blanton's kitchen meant nothing because prosecutors failed to play 26 minutes of previous conversation. ``You can't judge a conversation in a vacuum,'' Robbins said.
Robbins also said Blanton's conversations with Burns were nothing but boasting between ``two drunk rednecks.'' He dismissed Burns and other prosecution witnesses as liars.
Another former Klan member, Robert ``Dynamite Bob'' Chambliss, was convicted of murder in 1977 and died in prison in 1985.
Another former Klansman, Bobby Frank Cherry, was indicted last year but his trial was delayed after evaluations raised questions about his mental competency. A fourth suspect, Herman Cash, died without being charged.
The Justice Department concluded 20 years ago that former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had blocked prosecution of Klansmen in the bombing. The case was reopened following a 1993 meeting in Birmingham between FBI officials and black ministers, including Woods.
The investigation was not revealed publicly until 1997, when agents went to Texas to talk to Cherry.