May 15, 2002

Prosecutors Try to Recreate Birmingham's '63 Nightmare


Associated Press
Bobby Frank Cherry, bottom center facing camera, listened as lawyers conferred in his case, presided over by Judge James Garrett.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala., May 14 — Prosecutors led the jury today on a nightmare journey of crumpled church walls, shattered stained glass and murdered children and tried to bind a now-old white supremacist to that terror with a white Klansman's robe and a 38-year-old clip of black-and-white film.

Bobby Frank Cherry, the 71-year-old former Klansman who stands accused here in an Alabama court of killing four girls with a dynamite bomb at the 16th Street Baptist Church on Sunday, Sept. 15, 1963, bragged about that deed much of his life, said Robert Posey, one of the prosecutors.

"He has worn this crime like a badge of honor," said Mr. Posey, as prosecutors went on to paint a hellish picture of the scene inside the church, and the blizzard of glass, concrete and brick that killed Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Addie Mae Collins.

Two of the mothers of the murdered children wept on the witness stand as they described their daughters on what would become the single most infamous day of the civil rights movement. Alpha Robertson, Carole's mother, is 83 now and had to be wheeled into the courtroom in a wheelchair. She remembered the shoes her 14-year-old daughter wore. "Her first pair of real, black, heeled pumps," Mrs. Robertson said.

Maxine McNair, whose 11-year-old daughter, Denise, died while Addie Mae, 14, was tying the sash of her dress, remembered hearing the blast beneath her, in the church basement. "My baby, my baby," she thought.

Lawyers for Mr. Cherry, who is expected to be the last man tried in the historic, flawed, four-decade investigation into the civil rights era crime, said they did not question the wrongness of the act or the racial attitudes of the era.

But prosecutors are trying, through the defendant's past, to falsely insert Mr. Cherry's hands into "blank fingerprints," said Mickey Johnson, one of Mr. Cherry's defense lawyers.

"In 1963, in Birmingham, the people whose fingerprints would have fit into those blanks numbered in the hundreds if not thousands," Mr. Johnson said.

There were countless people whose racist attitudes would have made them suspects, defense lawyers said. Mr. Cherry, the last of the primary suspects in the bombing, has not been linked to the crime by even one piece of forensic evidence, Mr. Johnson said.

But prosecutors said they would tie him to that crime with other evidence, and put a man on the stand today who said he heard Mr. Cherry mention 16th Street Baptist Church and a bomb less than a week before the blast.

The man, Bobby Birdwell, a commercial plumber who grew up near Mr. Cherry's house in Ensley, just outside Birmingham, said he often played with Tommy Frank Cherry, Mr. Cherry's son. Mr. Birdwell testified that, in September 1963, he and Tommy Frank Cherry — Mr. Birdwell called him Frank — were playing in the neighborhood and decided to go into Bobby Frank Cherry's house to get some water. It was, Mr. Birdwell said, just four or five days before the bombing.

"We went through the living room," Mr. Birdwell recalled. "There was a robe on the couch. White robe. Cutouts in the eyes, and everything," he said. It was a Klansman's robe, Mr. Birdwell said.

"I asked Frank whose it was. He said, `It's my daddy's,' " Mr. Birdwell said.

The boys walked on through the house to get their water, and found Mr. Cherry and three other men sitting in the kitchen, talking. The men were talking about integration.

"I heard them mention a bomb, and 16th Street," Mr. Birdwell said. "Well, me and Frank went out and played." He did not call the police. He was just a boy, he said, and he was frightened of what might happen if he told on Mr. Cherry.

Mr. Birdwell's own parents, like many people then, also opposed integration, he said. "I was scared," he said. "There was a lot going on back then, a lot of hatred."

In 1997, he read an article in a Birmingham newspaper about Mr. Cherry and the church bombing. "I called the F.B.I.," he said.

In cross-examination, Mr. Johnson attacked Mr. Birdwell's credibility. He asked Mr. Birdwell how often he drank, and Mr. Birdwell replied that he had an occasional beer.

He then asked Mr. Birdwell if an F.B.I. agent had asked in 1997 if he had a drinking problem, and if the agent had accused him of giving two versions of the story.

Mr. Birdwell said no, and Mr. Johnson — without explaining where he was headed with that line of questioning — asked and received permission from the judge, James Garrett, to recall Mr. Birdwell later.

It was the only testimony on the trial's opening day that linked, even circumstantially, Mr. Cherry with the actual bombing.

But prosecutors went on to try to link Mr. Cherry to other acts of racial violence, and used history to show the escalating tensions in the city at that time.

Trying to establish motive, they tried to place Mr. Cherry — through an old film — at the scene of a mob beating of a Birmingham civil rights hero as he tried, with his own children, to integrate a public school.

Jimmy Parker, a master technician and broadcast engineer, was a college student and cameraman in the late 1950's. A graduate of the school, Phillips High, he had gone back to get some grade transcripts so that he could apply to college. It was September 1957, and as he came out of the school, he testified, he saw a group of about 50 white people and "four, five or six cops" in a confrontation with the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, his wife and two children. Mr. Shuttlesworth was trying to enroll his children in that all-white school, and the mob attacked them.

"I noticed a ruckus going on," Mr. Parker said. "I grabbed my camera, and shot some film." His film shows a man who prosecutors believe is a young Bobby Frank Cherry in that mob, and shows him reaching into his pocket for something — "a roll of quarters," Mr. Parker guessed — and then swinging hard at Mr. Shuttlesworth.

"He swung, couldn't tell if he connected or not," Mr. Parker said.

The film showed the mob flailing at the smaller group of black people, including the children, as the police — at least at first — mostly let it happen. Prosecutors then froze the film on a shot of the man believed to be Mr. Cherry, a cigarette dangling from his lip.

On cross-examination, Mr. Johnson asked what Mr. Parker did with the film he shot. "I sold it," he said. "This looks like evidence of a crime," Mr. Johnson said. Why, he asked, did Mr. Parker not take the film to the police? Mr. Parker, straight-faced, told him there were several police watching it all happen. People in the courtroom politely chuckled.

Prosecutors seemed intent on showing how the events of the civil rights movement, and the mob violence and bombing that dogged it, led ultimately to the creation of people like Mr. Cherry and the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church.

Mr. Birdwell said he heard Mr. Cherry say his "kids will never go to school" with black children, using a racially offensive term.

Mr. Birdwell's testimony drew a glance from Mr. Cherry, who had mostly seemed uninterested in the proceedings, even as the mothers of two of the slain girls gave their emotional testimony. Mr. Cherry, who suffers, his lawyers say, from dementia, seemed alert as he moved around the courtroom, but sat stone-faced during the testimony. He had dozed off during jury selection.

The relatives of the bombing victims stared hard at him, with the exception of Mrs. Robertson, who refused to even look at him as she was wheeled through the courtroom.

Mr. Cherry, a truck driver who left Alabama for Texas in the 1970's, is expected to be the last man to stand trial in connection with the bombing. Robert Chambliss, an associate of his, was convicted in the bombing in 1977. He died in prison. Herman Frank Cash, another suspect, died untried. Thomas E. Blanton Jr. was convicted last year, in a crime that — almost 40 years later still made people in the audience sob.

The Rev. John Cross, the pastor then, testified as to the condition of the bodies he found in the rubble. He had known all four of the girls. "Damage had occurred that made them look altogether different," he said.

Copyright 2002
The New York Times Company