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Klansman gets life in church bombing

BIRMINGHAM, Ala., May 1 -- A former Ku Klux Klansman was sentenced to life in prison Tuesday after he was found guilty of murdering four young black girls by bombing an Alabama church in one of the darkest chapters of the South's civil rights history.

A jury of eight whites and four blacks convicted Thomas Blanton Jr., 62, for killing four girls in a bombing more than 37 years ago at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. At the time, the church was a meeting place for civil rights activists.

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Jurors deliberated just over two hours before finding Blanton guilty. They recommended life in prison, but Jefferson County Circuit Judge James Garrett did not immediately impose a sentence. The case was tried by federal prosecutors under a special arrangement with a state court.

"They say that justice delayed is justice denied. Well, folks, I don't believe that for an instant. Justice delayed is still justice and we've got it right here in Birmingham tonight," U.S. Attorney Doug Jones said outside the courthouse after the jury's decision.

Blanton's attorney, John Robbins, said he would appeal the conviction. He criticized jury selection and prosecutors' use of secret recordings made by the government in Blanton's apartment and an FBI informant's car. On one of the tapes, Blanton could be heard bragging, "They ain't gonna catch me when I bomb my next church."

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"The biggest issue on appeal is going to be the introduction of the tape from 1964," Robbins said. During the trial, Robbins told jurors that the tape recordings only proved "my client was a big mouth."

Blanton had pleaded not guilty to four counts of murder in the Sept. 15, 1963, dynamite blast that killed 11-year-old Denise McNair and 14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson.

The girls were killed in the basement of the church as they prepared for a Sunday church service. The deaths galvanized the civil rights movement and drew international attention.

During the trial, a woman who was Blanton's girlfriend during the early 1960s testified that they attended Klan meetings together. Waylene Vaughn said Blanton poured acid on blacks' car seats and once tried to run down a black man who was crossing the street.

Prosecutors presented 22 witnesses against Blanton, including victims' family members, FBI agents and a former Klansman who became a government informant. Blanton's defense attorney presented only two witnesses and did not put Blanton on the stand.

Former Klansman Robert Chambliss was convicted of murder in the bombing in 1977 in the same courtroom where jurors heard Blanton's case. Chambliss, nicknamed "Dynamite Bob," did not testify during his trial and died in prison eight years later. A fourth suspect in the case, Herman Cash, died in 1994 without being charged.

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"One of the things that a verdict like this does is to let everybody know that it does not matter how long it might take, prosecution and law enforcement are going to do their jobs," Jones said.

Charges are still pending against another ex-Klansman, Bobby Frank Cherry, 71. However, his trial has been delayed in an effort to determine whether he is mentally competent.

While Birmingham's racial climate has improved since the 1960s, it remains the nation's 11th most segregated city.

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