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Ex-Klansman Convicted in 1963 Alabama Church Blast

Crime: Life term is given in bombing that killed four black girls and galvanized the civil rights movement.

May 02, 2001|JEFFREY GETTLEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Deliberating just 2 1/2 hours, a jury on Tuesday night convicted former Ku Klux Klansman Thomas E. Blanton Jr. of blowing up a Birmingham church in 1963 and killing four black girls inside.

It was a shockingly coldblooded crime that galvanized support for civil rights and culminated this week in an emotion-drenched trial that drew worldwide attention.

When it was over, Blanton, who professed his innocence to the end but left the courthouse with a life sentence, said: "I guess the good Lord will settle it on Judgment Day."

The prosecution had painted Blanton, 62, as a vicious racist, desperate to derail the civil rights movement as it was cresting in the Deep South. The most damaging evidence were 36-year-old tape-recordings in which Blanton never directly said he bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church but once bragged to a friend, "I like to go shooting, I like to go fishing, I like to go bombing."

Blanton's lawyers fought unsuccessfully to keep the tapes out of the trial. After the verdict was announced, defense lawyer John Robbins said the use of the tapes, made via wiretaps, would be grounds for an appeal.

The trial lasted seven days and the jury took less than an afternoon to bring closure to a case that has haunted Birmingham and beyond for nearly four decades.

The jury forewoman sobbed throughout her reading of the four guilty verdicts. At one point, she had to pause to gather her emotions.

Blanton's conviction "makes a statement on how far we've come," the Rev. Abraham Woods, the local president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said outside the courthouse.

On the morning of Sept. 15, 1963, the four girls in white dresses were getting ready for Sunday services at 16th Street Baptist Church.

Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, all 14, and Denise McNair, 11, were primping in a basement lounge when 10 sticks of dynamite exploded, ripping through an outside wall and burying them in an avalanche of splintered glass and concrete.

Within days, FBI agents had identified four suspects, all rabid segregationists and members of the Ku Klux Klan: Robert E. "Dynamite Bob" Chambliss, Herman Frank Cash, Frank Cherry and Blanton, then 25 and a former Navy mechanic.

Shortly before the explosion, witnesses had seen four white men waiting outside the church in a blue and white 1957 Chevy with a long antenna sporting a Confederate flag. Blanton drove such a car.

But despite that lead and evidence gathered through informants and wiretaps on the men's phones, then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover called the agents off and sealed the recordings. An Alabama jury--then likely all white men--would never convict the Klansmen, Hoover said.

The decision provoked outrage at a time when the civil rights movement was at its height, and Birmingham was at the center of the turbulence.

Newly elected Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace ordered National Guard troops to block black students from entering public schools. Birmingham public safety commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor turned German shepherds and fire hoses on peaceful demonstrators.

President Kennedy anguished over what to do. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. marched in the streets. And the Klan detonated so much dynamite in Alabama's largest city that it became known as "Bombingham."

The church bombing case remained inactive until 1971, when a young Alabama attorney general, William J. Baxley, went after Chambliss, who was thought to be the mastermind. He was convicted in 1977 and died in prison eight years later.

Still, there wasn't enough evidence to make a case against the other three. Cash died in 1994.

Meanwhile, prosecutors across the South were reopening old cases--and winning them. Byron De La Beckwith was convicted in 1994 of assassinating civil rights leader Medgar Evers in 1963. Former Klan imperial wizard Sam Bowers was convicted three years ago of the 1966 firebomb killing of a leader of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.

In 1997, FBI agents began to close in on Cherry and Blanton, then a clerk at Wal-Mart and living in a trailer outside Birmingham. Last May, the two were indicted on four counts of murder.

Cherry, 71, was dropped from the case after a judge declared him mentally incompetent to stand trial.

Jury selection began April 16 and drew journalists and television crews from across the world. With riot police standing by, crowds surrounded the courthouse each day to catch a glimpse of the tired, sad-looking Blanton.

Prosecutors built a case mainly on circumstantial evidence without directly placing Blanton at the crime scene. The key evidence was the tape-recordings, played repeatedly with transcribed text shown on video screens. Most of the tapes were made a year after the bombing.

On one tape, Blanton boasts to a friend he would not be caught "when I bomb my next church."

On another, made via a secret recording device in his kitchen, Blanton tells his wife about a meeting where "we planned the bomb."

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