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Birmingham Bomber Bobby Frank Cherry Dies in Prison at 74

By Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 19, 2004; Page B05

Bobby Frank Cherry, 74, the last suspect to be convicted in the killing of four black girls in the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church, died Nov. 18 in an Alabama prison, authorities said. He had cancer.

The Sunday morning bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, which was called the deadliest crime of the civil rights era, shocked the nation. But years would pass before anyone would be brought to justice.

Bobby Frank Cherry, a former Ku Klux Klan, was convicted of a 1963 church bombing that killed four. (LM Otero -- AP File Photo)

Mr. Cherry was convicted in May 2002 of four counts of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Two other former Ku Klux Klan members also were convicted in separate trials in the Sept. 15, 1963, explosion, which killed Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, all 14, and 11-year-old Denise McNair.

Thomas Blanton, convicted in 2001, is serving a life sentence. Robert Chambliss was the first to be convicted, in 1977. He died in prison. A fourth man died before being charged.

After nearly 40 years, the case was brought to an end with Mr. Cherry's conviction. The girls had been in the basement of the church preparing for the service when an explosion collapsed the building's lower floor and blew out all the windows in the sanctuary except for a stained-glass window.

Mr. Cherry, a former truck driver, moved to Texas in the early 1970s. He found work as a clerk, a welder and a cabdriver. He reportedly had been married five times and had 15 children. He was brought back to Alabama to stand trial.

During his week-long trial in a Birmingham courtroom, Mr. Cherry was portrayed as a violent racist who thought he could turn back the civil rights movement by bombing the downtown church, an organizing base for civil rights demonstrators determined to integrate the racially divided city. Public schools in the city had been integrated days earlier after a federal court order was issued.

A jury of nine whites and three blacks convicted Mr. Cherry after listening to testimony from his estranged relatives and newly discovered FBI files. After the verdict was read, Mr. Cherry continued to maintain his innocence.

"This whole bunch lied all the way through this thing," he said when Circuit Judge James Garrett asked him whether he had anything to say. "Now, I don't know why I'm going to jail for nothing. I didn't do anything."

Mr. Cherry and the three other Klansmen were suspected within days of the bombing. They were known for their violent behavior. But the case faltered after 1965, when FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover refused to pursue it.

Twelve more years would pass before Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley completed a seven-year investigation, which resulted in the conviction of Chambliss, who was considered the gang leader.

The case received renewed attention in 1993, when an FBI agent in the Birmingham office recovered more than 9,000 FBI documents and surveillance tapes that had not been shared with prosecutors.

Several of Mr. Cherry's relatives, including an ex-wife and a granddaughter, testified against him, saying he boasted about the bombing.

During the trial, the ex-wife testified, "He said he lit the fuse."

At one point in Mr. Cherry's trial, prosecutors showed the jury a videotape of a white mob beating local civil rights leader Fred Shuttlesworth.

A story in The Washington Post described the scene: "Prosecutors froze the film as a slender white man with a bulbous nose, wavy hair and a cigarette dangling from his mouth -- unmistakably a young Bobby Frank Cherry -- was seen slamming his fist into the minister's head after pulling what appeared to be a set of brass knuckles from his back pocket."

In 2002, a television drama was made based on Mr. Cherry's involvement in the bombing. It was called "Sins of the Father."

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