BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (Reuters) - A former member of the Ku Klux Klan was
of first-degree murder on Tuesday for killing four black girls in the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham
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 Judgement 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 2-1/2 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, 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.
Defense Plans Appeal
Defense 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 on Tuesday 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.