Alabama prosecutors took almost 40 years to bring former Ku Klux Klansman Bobby Frank Cherry to trial, but a mostly white jury deliberated less than a day before convicting him yesterday of murdering four black girls in the 1963 bombing of Birmingham's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, a crime that became a watershed in the civil rights movement.
Before a courtroom crowd that included white-haired movement veterans and relatives both of the victims and of Cherry, the 71-year-old retired truck driver was led away in handcuffs as the city's most historic and heinous crime became a closed case. Cherry, the third former Klansman convicted of the bombing, faces an automatic life sentence. Prosecutors say they have no other suspects.
"The people of the state of Alabama proved for the second time in about a year that justice delayed does not have to be justice denied," said prosecutor Doug Jones, who also won a conviction last year against former Klansman Thomas Blanton after the case had been dormant for almost 25 years.
After waiting 39 years for justice, the family members of the victims were more subdued but noticeably relieved. "My mother used to always tell me you've got to learn to love and to forget, and the hardest part is going to be to forget," said Eunice Davis, sister of Cynthia Wesley, who was 14 when she died in the bombing.
The verdict, by a jury of six white women, three white men and three black men, came after a weeklong trial in which the state painted Cherry as a violent racist who believed he could turn back the civil rights movement by bombing the church.
The stately downtown church was an organizing base for civil rights marches that earlier in 1963 had forced city officials to integrate downtown lunch counters. The Sept. 15 bombing came five days after Birmingham's public schools were integrated by federal court order. The four young victims -- Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Wesley, all 14, and Denise McNair, 11 -- were found in the ladies' lounge, where they had been dressing for a service.
Cherry's attorney argued that prosecutors had built their case on unreliable witnesses, sketchy memories and emotionalism, and had proved only that his client was a racist, which he said was true of "hundreds, if not thousands," of white Alabamans in the 1960s. So many black neighborhoods were bombed at the time that the city was known as "Bombingham."
Cherry did not testify, and his voice was not heard throughout the trial until after the jury forewoman read the four guilty verdicts -- one for each victim -- when Circuit Judge James Garrett asked if he had anything to say.
"This whole bunch lied all the way through this thing," said the white-haired defendant. "Now, I don't know why I'm going to jail for nothing. I didn't do anything."
The government built its case against Cherry exclusively on circumstantial evidence -- a granddaughter who recalled him saying "he helped blow up a bunch of niggers back in Birmingham," and an ex-wife who said he bragged that "he was the one" who lit the fuse. The government also showed Cherry to be a close associate of Blanton and another Klansman convicted of the bombing. And it produced a 1960s FBI interview with Cherry in which he said he had spent the Friday night before the bombing at a store where, prosecutors later learned, the church bomb was made.
Cherry and four other Klansmen known for violent behavior were prime suspects within days of the bombing, but the case was almost given up for dead after 1965 when then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover refused to pursue it.
It was 12 more years before the presumed ringleader of the group, Robert "Dynamite Bob" Chambliss, was convicted after a seven-year investigation by then-Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley. The FBI refused until the end to cooperate, Baxley said.
The case was reopened in 1993, when an FBI agent in the Birmingham office exhumed more than 9,000 FBI documents and surveillance tapes made in the 1960s but never shared with prosecutors. Several estranged relatives of Cherry's -- he reportedly has been married five times and has fathered 15 children -- came forward to testify against him. By then, the other two suspects named in 1965 had died.
Cherry was to have been tried with Blanton, but doctors declared him incompetent because of a diagnosis of vascular dementia. They later concluded that he had faked the extent of his problems.
Among those present for yesterday's verdict was the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, who led Birmingham's civil rights movement in the '50s and '60s. During the trial, prosecutors showed jurors a 1957 videotape of Shuttlesworth trying to enroll his children in an all-white high school. He was attacked by a white mob, including a 26-year-old Cherry, who was seen striking Shuttlesworth's head with brass knuckles.
After the verdict, Shuttlesworth, 80, stood with other movement veterans outside the courthouse and sang a ballad from the 1960s: "Keep your eyes on the prize. Hold on."
Peeples reported from Birmingham.