Tales From the Tapes Help Convict Birmingham Bomber

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Thomas Blanton Jr. is lead out of the courtroom in handcuffs

The words rose and fell over the courtroom, hard to make out, yet clear enough at times to send looks of chilled surprise among the spellbound spectators: "...nigger...bomb...mother-f----' church... .bomb...plan...bomb...''

The voice was that of Thomas E. Blanton, Jr., secretly recorded in the mid-1960s by a Ku Klux Klan buddy turned informant for the FBI, and the tapes helped convince jurors after just three hours of deliberation to convict Blanton, now 62, of the 1963 bombing that killed four young girls at the city's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.

Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, all 14, and Denise McNair, 11, were killed in a bomb explosion on the morning of Sept. 15, 1963, an act that horrified the nation and helped lead to passage of a landmark civil rights bill.

The trial took place 38 years after the fact, but U.S. Attorney Doug Jones argued that was irrelevant: "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." In his closing arguments, Jones showed jurors videos of taped statements Blanton made in 1964 and 1965. Blanton has always denied knowledge of the bombing, but had been evasive when the FBI asked him about his whereabouts on the night of Sept. 14, 1963, when agents believe the bomb was placed at the church.

"He remembers everything about that day," Jones said. "But when it comes to that night, he gets fuzzy." Blanton's alibis shifted from his being in various restaurants to simply driving around Birmingham. The state contended that Blanton met with other Klansmen Sept. 13 under a bridge on the Cahaba River and made the bomb that detonated at the church. The jury, composed of eight white women, three black women and one black man, agreed, and gave Blanton four life sentences.

News of the verdict swept through the city. Dale Short, a free-lance writer who has been covering the trial, had left and stopped by a liquor store. "They had the TV on and it came on and the people started calling out in jubilation," he said. "'He's been charged,' one of them said. And I said, 'You mean convicted?' And they said yeah, convicted."

The damning audio tapes were made by Mitchell Burns, who in 1965 was 35. Now 74, he is a slim, silver-haired man with glasses and a crusty sense of humor. In 1964 he let the FBI plant a tape recorder in his 1956 Chevrolet after an agent showed him a picture of the dead girls. "It was the most horrible thing I ever seen," he said, voice quivering. He later referred to Blanton as "a punk."

On the tapes, Blanton boasts, "I was on the corner watching the big blast." As he listened in the Birmingham courtroom to the nearly four-decades-old recording, Burns removed his glasses and wiped at his eyes.

Burns said that Blanton liked to return to the scene of the bombing. In one case, as they drove by the church, Blanton is heard saying, "They ain't going to catch me when I bomb my next church."

Laughter. Then Burns says, "How'd you do that?"

"It wasn't easy, I tell you."

Will the conviction bring an end to the nightmarish memory that has haunted Birmingham all these years? Willoughby Anderson, 22, a Harvard graduate from Birmingham who wrote a thesis on the church bombing, isn't sure. "I don't think justice is possible after 38 years," she says. "But I think this is important for Birmingham just to be talking about this painful and embarrassing moment of our history."

However, the Rev. Abraham Lincoln Woods, president of the Birmingham chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was more positive about the result. "It makes a statement around the nation and the world. If a guilty person can go without being brought to justice it means that the life of a black is not as valuable as a white."