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Ex-Klansman Bobby Frank Cherry convicted of murder in 1963 church bombing
By Jay Reeves, Associated Press, 05/22/02
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- A racially mixed jury convicted former Klansman Bobby Frank Cherry of murder Wednesday for the 1963 church bombing that killed four black girls and shook the nation's soul.
The verdict, reached in less than seven hours of deliberation, brought tears from relatives on both sides and a statement of defiance from the 71-year-old defendant, who was automatically sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison.
Asked by the judge if he had any comment, Cherry stood and pointed directly at prosecutors.
"This whole bunch lied all the way through this thing," he said, his Southern drawl steady and clear in the courtroom. "I told the truth. I don't know why I'm going to jail for nothing."
The attack at the Sixteeenth Street Baptist Church was the deadliest of the civil rights era. The murder of young girls gathering at church for worship also exposed the chilling depth of racial hatred that black protesters faced in the Deep South and helped bring racial moderates off the sidelines in the civil rights struggle.
Within two years, as protests spread in the wake of the bombing, federal civil rights and voting rights laws were passed by Congress.
Cherry will be the last suspect tried in the blast. Two other ex-Klansmen were convicted earlier and sent to prison and a fourth suspect died without being charged.
Eunice Davis, sister of victim Cynthia Wesley, rocked in her seat and wept as Cherry was led out of the crowded courtroom in handcuffs. "It's time. It's time," she said.
"We feel like we can go on with our lives now," added Junie Collins Peevy, sister of victim Addie Mae Collins.
Cherry's relatives huddled in the courtroom after the verdict, several with tears in their eyes. His lawyers left the courthouse without commenting on any possible appeal.
The jury of nine whites and three blacks returned the verdict after a weeklong trial that was filled with haunting images from the nation's segregationist past and witnesses with admittedly faded memories.
Prosecutors showed jurors morgue photos of the torn and bloodied victims: Wesley, Collins and Carole Robertson, all 14; and Denise McNair, 11. The gruesome images were shown as the girls' relatives sat in the front row of the courtroom, as they did throughout the trial.
The bomb shook downtown Birmingham shortly after 10 a.m. as church members prepared for a youth-led Sunday worship service on Sept. 15, 1963. The city's public schools had been integrated a few days earlier after a six-year court fight, and tensions had been running high for much of the year.
Denise's mother, Maxine McNair, described for the jury how she was inside the church when the bomb exploded. "My first thought was, `My baby, my baby,"' she said.
Evidence showed Cherry was a suspect within days of the bombing, and he moved his family to Texas in the early 1970s as authorities in Alabama continued to question him about the bombing. A retired trucker, he most recently lived in the town of Mabank, southeast of Dallas.
Cherry always denied involvement in the bombing, both publicly and in a series of interviews with investigators.
But prosecutors reopened the case in 1995 and found five estranged family members and acquaintances who said Cherry boasted of his involvement in the crime.
"He said he lit the fuse," testified ex-wife Willadean Brogdon.
Added granddaughter Teresa Stacy: "He said he helped blow up a bunch of niggers back in Birmingham."
Prosecutors also presented witnesses and secretly recorded tapes to show that Cherry was associated with ex-Klansmen Thomas Blanton Jr. and Robert "Dynamite Bob" Chambliss, the two men previously convicted in the bombing.
Defense attorneys said the links meant nothing. Everyone in the Klan could have been a suspect, they said. Defense attorney Mickey Johnson said those who claimed to have heard Cherry confess were all liars out to get a mentally addled old man.
"Can any of these witnesses have any credibility with the jury?" Johnson asked.
Cherry did not testify. His trial was delayed about a year by questions over his mental competency, and Johnson said his client easily could have become confused on the stand if asked to testify.
For years, it looked like none of the bombing suspects would be brought to court. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover concluded in 1965 that Birmingham's racial climate meant a guilty verdict was highly unlikely, and the government closed the case in 1968 without any charges.
A state investigation was reopened in the 1970s under former Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley, and Chambliss was convicted in 1977 and sentenced to life. He died behind bars.
Federal authorities reopened the case in 1995 at the urging of black ministers troubled by the lack of prosecution in the girls' deaths.
Cherry and Blanton were indicted in 2000, and Blanton was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment last year. The fourth main suspect, Herman Cash, died in 1994 without being ever charged.
The case in many ways was about justice for the victims and vindication for a self-conscious Southern city long tarred by images of racial violence.
After the verdict, there was a carnival-like atmosphere of celebration in the plaza outside the courthouse: A man sitting under an umbrella sold peanuts as politicians handed out fliers. A group of blacks sang old civil rights songs.
"Birmingham has finally come from the degradation of poverty and segregation to come together," said Hosea Agee, a black minister long active in civil rights.
"Justice will shine for black and white people now," said the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, a Cincinnati minister who was attacked by Cherry in 1957 during an attempt to integrate a Birmingham public school.
The Rev. Abraham Woods, a longtime civil rights leader, added: "God has spoken in Birmingham."
© Copyright 2002 Boston Globe Electronic Publishing Inc.