The Birmingham Church Bombing: Bombingham
The trial of Thomas Blanton opened in April 2001. Anticipation was high for a conviction, but the evidence gathered against Blanton was circumstantial. There was no eyewitness and no single conclusive fact that pointed to Blanton as one of the bombers. In addition, the crime scene at the church produced very little hard evidence. An FBI report stated that, after a careful examination of the debris at the scene, "the laboratory failed to identify the type of explosive due to a lack of residue. No fragments of a mechanical timing device, fuse or blasting caps were found." The prosecution could also not say positively how the dynamite was acquired, how it was brought to the Sixteenth Street Church or even who planted the bomb. Memories were less than accurate after 38 long years and other witnesses had simply passed away.
But back in 1964, the FBI had planted a bug in Blanton's apartment. Though Blanton, Chambliss and Cherry were not charged with the church bombing, they were considered suspects almost immediately after the crime. The FBI succeeded in taping dozens of conversations with fellow Klan members that implicated Blanton in the bombing. On these tapes, he made several incriminating statements.
"I like to go shooting. I like to go fishing. I like to go bombing," he once said to a friend. At one point Blanton blurted out, "I am going to stick to bombing churches." On another tape, he could be heard telling his wife, "We planned the bomb." When another Klansman talks about the rash of bombings in the city, Blanton blurted out, "They ain't gonna catch me when I bomb my next church!" Prosecutors contended that these statements were tantamount to a confession. Defense attorney Robbins dismissed Blanton's statements as just "two rednecks driving around, drinking, running their mouths." But it was hard for the jury to disregard Blanton's statements about bombing churches.
In order to establish Blanton's racist views, prosecutors put several character witnesses on the stand who testified to the defendant's pathological hatred of blacks. "He said 'All I want is a chance to kill one of those black bastards!'" one witness told the court.
In closing arguments, U.S. Attorney Robert Posey said Blanton killed 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," he said, "These children must not have died in vain. Don't let the deafening blast of his bomb be what's left ringing our ears." Defense attorney Robbins countered by reminding the jury that "a courtroom is not a popularity contest. There's people around the world looking down on the city of Birmingham, don't get caught up in it." The jury deliberated for just two hours. They returned with a verdict of guilty on four counts of first-degree murder. Blanton was stunned. When he returned to the court for sentencing, he was asked if he had anything to say.
"No," he said quietly, "I guess the good Lord will settle on Judgment Day." Thomas Blanton was sentenced to life in prison times four, one for each of the lives lost on September 15, 1963. He was immediately handcuffed and taken away. Outside the courthouse, reporters interviewed U.S. Attorney Doug Jones.
"They say that justice delayed is justice denied and folks," he said, "I don't believe that for a minute." The mother of Carole Robertson, Alpha Robertson, then 82, and one of the last two surviving parents of the girls killed in the explosion, watched the scene from a hallway nearby. She spoke to reporters from her wheelchair.
"I'm very happy that justice came down today," she said softly, "I didn't know if it would come in my lifetime."