- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 3, 2016

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - The lone surviving Ku Klux Klansman imprisoned for killing four black girls in a church bombing in 1963 will remain behind bars after Alabama’s parole board heeded the victims’ families Wednesday and refused an early release.

The board rejected parole for Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr., 78, who has served 15 years of a life term for being part of a group of Klansmen who planted a bomb outside Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church during the civil rights movement.

Lisa McNair, a sister of bombing victim Denise McNair, was relieved by the decision.

“Justice is served,” she said afterward.

Blanton, who lives in a one-person cell and rarely has contact with other inmates at St. Clair prison, will again be eligible for parole consideration in five years, the board said. The automatic review was the first for Blanton.

Blanton was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison for his role in the Sept. 15, 1963, bombing. The blast killed the 11-year-old McNair and 14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Morris, also known as Cynthia Wesley.

The girls were inside the church preparing for worship when the bomb went off, sending stone and brick flying. They died instantly, and Collins’ sister Sarah Collins Rudolph was seriously injured.

Left with only one eye and recurrent problems with post-traumatic stress syndrome, the 65-year-old Rudolph asked the board to keep Blanton in prison.

“We were at that church learning about love and forgiveness when someone was outside doing hateful things,” she said.

Inmates do not attend parole hearings under Alabama law, and no one showed up to speak on Blanton’s behalf. Opponents took up seats normally reserved for inmates’ relatives, and members of the Birmingham NAACP chapter rode to Montgomery on a bus to be there.

Doug Jones, a former U.S. attorney who prosecuted Blanton on the state charge, said Blanton shouldn’t be released since he has neither accepted responsibility for the bombing nor expressed any remorse. Jones said freeing Blanton would both compound the “insurmountable pain” endured by the girls’ families and set a bad precedent.

“Whether it’s racial issues, whether it’s gender issues, whether it is terrorist activity similar to what Mr. Blanton perpetrated in 1963, the message is we have to stop the hate and we will punish those who kill or maim in the name of hate,” Jones said.

While the board normally consists of three people, one seat is vacant and only members Eddie Cook Jr. and Cliff Walker heard the case. They decided against parole after hearing the opposition and conferring briefly.

Long a suspect in the case, Blanton was the second of three people convicted in the bombing. Robert Chambliss, convicted in 1977, and Bobby Frank Cherry, convicted in in 2002, have both died in prison.

Blanton and Cherry were indicted in 2000 after the FBI reopened an investigation of the bombing. Evidence against Blanton included secret recordings that were made using FBI bugs at his home and in the car of a fellow Klansman turned informant.

Dianne Robertson Braddock, a sister of victim Carole Robertson, said relatives of the girls are still trying to put the bombing behind them all these years later, yet Blanton spent most of his life free.

“After 15 years we are talking about parole. It is appalling,” she said.

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This story has been corrected to say Blanton is 78, not 76. Links photos.

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