Ex-Klansman Heads to Trial for Murder

Associated Press/May 6, 2002

Birmingham, Ala. -- The murder trial of a former Ku Klux Klansman could be the final chapter in one of the worst cases of violence against the civil rights movement -- the 1963 church bombing that killed four black girls.

Bobby Frank Cherry, 71, is accused of helping other Klansmen plant the powerful bomb that blew a hole in an exterior wall of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on Sept. 15, 1963, killing the girls as they were preparing for church service.

The church had become a rallying point for protesters during months of civil rights demonstrations.

The trial was scheduled to begin Monday after a delay caused by a state-ordered moratorium on jury trials.

Jury selection was expected to take most of the week. The trial is expected to last two to three weeks.

Cherry, who could face life if convicted, is the final suspect to stand trial in the case.

The trial "brings us a little closer to justice being done,'' said the Rev. John Porter, a civil rights leader and retired minister, whose Sixth Avenue Baptist Church was the site of funerals for three of the girls.

Cherry was one of a group of Klansmen who came under almost immediate suspicion.

But the first conviction didn't come until 1977, when Robert "Dynamite Bob'' Chambliss was sentenced to prison, where he later died. Ex-Klansman Thomas Blanton Jr. was convicted of murder last year and sentenced to prison. A fourth suspect, Herman Cash, died in 1994 without being charged.

Cherry was to have gone to trial with Blanton, but he was ruled not mentally competent to stand trial.

Prosecutors appealed, and Cherry was committed to a state-run psychiatric hospital for an evaluation. Psychologists testified in December that Cherry was faking mental problems and possibly taking too much of a medicine prescribed for anxiety.

In January, Circuit Judge James Garrett reversed his earlier decision and declared Cherry mentally competent for trial.

No other single act of violence during the movement against racial segregation tore at hearts like the deaths of 11-year-old Denise McNair and 14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson.

"I think part of the closure of the case, probably the most significant aspect,'' said prosecutor Doug Jones, "is simply that it's been reopened and it's been examined, every nook and cranny has been looked into, every stone has been unturned that we could find, and here we are.''

Cherry's attorneys, Mickey Johnson and Rodger Bass, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Porter, the retired minister, said it's important to blacks in Birmingham, particularly friends and family of the girls, to know that suspects have been arrested and brought to trial.

"It's important to say, you can't do these kinds of deeds and walk away clean,'' Porter said. "There was a time when people weren't accountable. This trial says that era is now being closed.''

A former member of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and friend of relatives of the slain girls, 74-year-old Estelle Boyd, said that while she believes the trial will bring justice, she's not sure the pain of that terrible Sunday morning will ever go away.

"People keep talking about closure,'' Boyd said. "I feel that for some people there may never be what I define as closure.''

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