BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – It took nearly four decades after the killing of four black girls in a church bombing before a former Ku Klux Klansman was put on trial -- and just 2 hours for a jury to convict him.
Then, even before Thomas Blanton Jr. was led from the courtroom Tuesday in handcuffs to serve a life term, questions were raised about when, and if, prosecutors would attempt to try Bobby Frank Cherry, the only other living suspect in the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.
Both men -- among four identified as suspects within weeks of the bombing -- were indicted last year and had been scheduled to go to trial at the same time, but Circuit Judge James Garrett delayed Cherry's trial because of questions about his mental competence.
"Now it's time to go after Cherry. I am tired of hearing about his mental competency. They have tried mentally retarded black men," said the Rev. Abraham Woods, a black minister who help persuade the FBI to reopen the church bombing case.
Prosecutor Doug Jones said no decision would be made until an evaluation of the 71-year-old Cherry's competence was completed.
The jury of eight whites and four blacks deliberated for 2 hours Tuesday before finding Blanton, 62, guilty of first-degree murder. They had heard a week of arguments and evidence, including audiotapes secretly recorded 37 years earlier.
During the deliberations, jurors said, they prayed, discussed the evidence and replayed the secretly recorded FBI tapes in which Blanton was heard talking about making the bomb.
"We went back over the tape and listened, and determined that we heard enough," Betty Walls, 69, told The Birmingham News.
On one tape, Blanton was heard telling a Klansman-turned-informant he would not be caught "when I bomb my next church."
Defense attorney John Robbins said the jury's speed showed it was caught up in the emotion of the infamous case. "This case has been going on for 37 years and there have been books written and magazine articles over that time saying my client was guilty," he said.
Robbins also blamed the lack of white males on the jury -- 11 women and one black man -- saying that "absolutely hurt Blanton."
Jones said he didn't feel the verdict had been tainted by the decades.
"They say justice delayed is justice denied. Well, folks, I don't believe that at all," Jones said. "Justice delayed is still justice."
The swift verdict was sweet news for many black Birmingham residents.
"It's an emotional experience," said Estelle Boyd, a member of the church now and in 1963. Boyd said she is a friend of relatives of the four girls: Denise McNair, who was 11, and Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, who were all 14.
"This means a great deal to the families. If you have children, you are able to empathize," Boyd said.
NAACP Chairman Julian Bond said the conviction, the latest in a series of civil rights-era crimes brought belatedly to court, was commendable.
"If Southerners want to put this era behind them, this is the best way to do it -- by bringing to justice the terrorists who tried and failed to stop the movement for democracy," Bond said. "This is great news."
Of Cherry, he said: "As long as he's living, and if he's able to stand trial, then he needs to face a jury of his peers."
The cases against Blanton and Cherry are the latest from the turbulent civil rights era to be revived by prosecutors. Byron De La Beckwith was convicted in 1994 of assassinating civil rights leader Medgar Evers in 1963, and former Klan imperial wizard Sam Bowers was convicted three years ago of the 1966 firebomb-killing of an NAACP leader.
The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church had been a gathering place for civil rights protests in the weeks before the Sept. 15, 1963. The Sunday morning blast forced moderates off the sidelines and gave the civil rights movement new momentum. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were passed by Congress.
Denise's parents, Chris and Maxine McNair, didn't comment as they left the courthouse after the verdict. Chris McNair was hugged by Jones, who fought back tears as he told reporters: "We're happy for the families. We're happy for the girls."
Carole's mother, Alpha Robertson, said she was "very happy that justice came down."
"I didn't know if it would come in my lifetime," she told The New York Times.
Asked by the judge if he had any comment, Blanton replied: "I guess the good Lord will settle it on judgment day."
Robbins he would appeal for a new trial, citing the judge's refusal to move it out of Birmingham and the use of the tapes. Robbins contends the tapes were inadmissible, illegally recorded and violated Blanton's right to a speedy trial.
Of the other two suspects in the church bombing, Robert Chambliss was convicted of murder in 1977 and died in prison. Herman Cash died without being charged.
The Justice Department concluded 20 years ago that former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had blocked prosecution of Klansmen in the bombing. The case was reopened following a 1993 meeting between FBI officials and black ministers, including Woods.