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Birmingham church bomber guilty, gets four life terms

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Robbins said he will appeal the jury's "emotional" verdict  

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (CNN) -- Almost 40 years after the crime, the man accused of one of the most celebrated crimes of the civil rights era was convicted of all four counts of first-degree murder Tuesday and sentenced to life in prison.

A jury of eight whites and four blacks deliberated for two hours before convicting Thomas Blanton, 62, of plotting the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Bapist Church that killed four black girls who were preparing for a church youth service.

Defense attorney John Robbins said he will appeal the jury's "emotional" verdict.

Blanton was immediately taken to the Birmingham City Jail.

Prosecutors contended Blanton, a former member of the Ku Klux Klan, worked with others to plot the bombing of the black church.

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U.S. Attorney Doug Jones said in closing arguments that the fact the trial was taking place 38 years after the attack made it no less important.

"It's never too late for the truth to be told. It's never to late for wounds to heal. It's never too late for a man to be held accountable for his crimes," Jones told the court.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Posey said Blanton "killed these worshippers in God's house on Sunday morning because he was a man of hate.

"The defendant didn't care who he killed as long as he killed someone and as long as that person was black," Posey said. "These children must not have died in vain. Don't let the deafening blast of his bomb be what's left ringing in our ears."

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Blanton has long denied any involvement in the September 15, 1963, bombing of the Sixteenth Baptist Church that killed 11-year-old Denise McNair and 14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson.

Robbins acknowledged Blanton was a "loudmouth" and a "segregationist" but said his client's foul mouth and offensive behavior in the 1960s were not enough evidence to convict him of murder.

"Fortunately, a courtroom is not a popularity contest," said Robbins, who urged the jurors not to think of the case as a chance to vindicate Birmingham, which became known for violence against civil rights demonstrators in the 1960s.

"There's people from around the country and around the world looking down on the city of Birmingham," he said. "Don't get caught up in it."

The trial, which began last Tuesday, reopened old wounds in the city. The court heard from family members whose loved ones were killed when the blast ripped through the church on a Sunday morning.

The church was a nerve center for civil rights advocates who took to the streets that year to protest Birmingham's segregation laws. As reported by the Associated Press, the bombing became a galvanizing moment for the civil rights movement, exposing the depths of racial hatred among some of its foes. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 followed.

Blanton was among a group of Klansman identified as suspects within weeks, although the Justice Department later concluded that prosecution was blocked by Director J. Edgar Hoover.

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 reviewed the tapes for jurors, putting transcript excerpts on the video screens, according to the AP report. He read from one transcript in which Blanton describes 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 dismissed Blanton's conversations with Burns as just "two rednecks driving around, drinking, running their mouths." As reported by the AP, Robbins said Burns and other prosecution witnesses were liars.

Other civil rights-era cases have been revived by prosecutors in recent years, as reported by the AP. In two Mississippi cases, Byron De La Beckwith was convicted in 1994 of assassinating civil rights leader Medgar Evers 31 years earlier and former Klan imperial wizard Sam Bowers was convicted three years ago of the 1966 firebomb-killing of an NAACP leader.

Blanton is one of four men tied to the bombing, prosecutors say. Robert "Dynamite Bob" Chambliss was convicted of murder in 1977 and died in prison. Another suspect, Herman Cash, died before he was charged.

Bobby Frank Cherry, 71, might never face trial after Judge Garrett ruled this month that he is not mentally competent to assist his attorneys.

The church bombing came during white backlash to desegregation in Birmingham that included a series of bombings of black homes. The city became known by the insulting nickname of "Bombingham."

Many residents remain defensive of the city's reputation. Jones, who prosecuted the case in state court under a special arrangement, touched on the fact in his closing statement, as reported by the AP.

"It took a long time for Birmingham to come to grips with the fact that liberty and justice is really for all," he said.



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