BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — The last surviving Klansman convicted in a church bombing that killed four black girls 50 years ago spends nearly all his time in a one-person prison cell, apparently too wary of other inmates to venture out.
Thomas E. Blanton Jr., one of three men convicted in the bombing, is allowed to have regular contact with other prisoners in a day room and go outside a few hours a week for exercise, but a prison spokesman said Blanton rarely does either.
Instead, as one of the most infamous prisoners currently in state custody, the 83-year-old man mostly keeps to himself.
“You might describe him as a loner,” Department of Corrections spokesman Brian Corbett said Monday.
A powerful dynamite bomb detonated outside Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church on Sept. 15, 1963, killing four girls and critically injuring a fifth as they prepared for worship on a Sunday morning.
Numerous events are being held this week in Birmingham to mark the anniversary of the bombing, and a fresh round of news coverage is once again focusing attention on the bombers.
Yet Corbett said Blanton isn’t receiving any special protection during anniversary commemorations since he’s already confined in the most secure way possible.
“That’s the way he lives all the time based on the high-profile nature of his case,” Corbett said.
While no one was arrested in the bombing for years, three Ku Klux Klansmen eventually were convicted in the blast: Robert Chambliss in 1977; Blanton in 2001; and Bobby Frank Cherry in 2002.
Chambliss and Cherry died in prison, but Blanton remains incarcerated at St. Clair Correctional Facility, located about 35 miles northeast of Birmingham, where he is serving a life term after being convicted of four counts of murder.
Blanton may be mostly silent now, but his own words helped convict him 11 years ago. Jurors heard secretly recorded tapes in which Blanton told his then-wife that he had been at a meeting where “we planned the bomb.”
Several years before Blanton’s trial, Cherry told investigators that Blanton was crazy, a “little thief” and a “lowlife” who wasn’t welcome in the Cherry household, according to FBI investigative files obtained by The Associated Press through the Freedom of Information Act.
Many Alabama inmates live in large dormitories with bunk beds, but Blanton is held in a more-secure block with one-man cells. There’s a day room that Blanton rarely visits, Corbett said, and he seldom goes outside for the five hours of exercise he’s allotted each week.
“He spends the vast majority of his time alone by choice,” said Corbett.
Blanton is in generally good health, but he has only one reqular visitor, a daughter, who comes to see him occasionally, Corbett said.
While Blanton typically uses his shower time — 10 minutes every other day — he neither participates in religious activities nor has company for meals.
“He eats alone. He’s served meals in his cell,” said Corbett.
A fourth suspect in the bombing, Herman Cash, died in 1994 without ever being charged.
AP writer Adam Goldman contributed to this report.