May 23, 2002

38 Years Later, Last of Suspects Is Convicted in Church Bombing

Bobby Frank Cherry, right, on Wednesday after being convicted of murder.
(Associated Press)
Bobby Frank Cherry, right, on Wednesday after being convicted of murder.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala., May 22 — When the crime was committed, when four girls lay blasted to death in the shattered basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church, Bobby Frank Cherry was young and strong and confident that his world, one of white robes and closed minds, would turn forever.

This afternoon, more than 38 years after his bomb shook the church in the most shameful act of the civil rights movement, he stood old, angry and puzzled as a mostly white jury sent him to prison for the rest of his life for the thing he had once laughed about in the company of like-minded men.

"I know one thing," said Sarah Collins Rudolph, who was 12 when the bomb went off, piercing her right eye with glass projectiles and blowing out the life of her sister, Addie Mae Collins. "It was a long time."

A Jefferson County jury of nine whites and three blacks found Mr. Cherry, a 71-year-old former Klansman, guilty of the murders of Addie Mae, Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, bringing to justice the last living defendant in the 1963 bombing, and closing the door on a crime that has haunted this city for four decades.

As the jury's forewoman, a short, middle-aged white woman, read the verdict, ticking off the word "guilty" four times for each one of the victims, Mr. Cherry stood still as a Confederate statue, a tiny American flag stuck in his lapel.

This was a historic crime, but one that did exactly the opposite of what the bombers had hoped it would do. Instead of forcing black leaders, through pure terror, to beg for segregation, it shamed and sickened white citizens. "This tragic event may cause the white South to come to terms with its conscience," the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. predicted at the little girls' funeral.

The South did change, but the killers of the girls hid for decades inside a brittle silence that cracked only when they boasted of their involvement in a moment of indiscretion with kin and people they believed held the same hatred. It was largely that boasting, recounted by witnesses, that convicted them all.

Judge James Garrett had warned the audience in this courtroom, a cold, modern, prefabricated building barely large enough to hold the crowd, that he would lock up anyone who exhibited "an emotional outcry." But as the forewoman read the verdicts, not by each victim's name but by a sterile case number, some black members of the audience began to cry and to mouth words of faith quietly. "Praise God, praise God," said one woman, in the sixth row. "Thank you, Jesus."

Just one row behind her, Mr. Cherry's 20-year-old grandson, Glenn Belcher, cried with his hands around his head. Myrtle Cherry, Mr. Cherry's wife, held him with one arm across his shoulders.

Each guilty verdict carries an automatic life sentence, under the state law in place at the time of the bombing on Sept. 15, 1963. The murder convictions carry an automatic appeal, which will be handled by the state attorney general, but prosecutors said today that they were "in good shape" for any appeal.

"Thank God, today you can say Birmingham is rising out of the dust," said the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, who was beaten in 1957 by Mr. Cherry with brass knuckles when he tried to enroll his own children in an all-white Birmingham school.

Mr. Cherry's conviction, after deliberations of more than six hours, brings to a close an often-flawed and often-abandoned investigation into the bombing, which — despite gaps of decades in its progress — has finally brought to justice all the men linked to the bombing who did not die before cases could be made.

Robert Chambliss, nicknamed "Dynamite Bob" for his links to so many of the more than 40 blasts that terrorized black citizens here in the civil rights era, was convicted in 1977, and died in prison. Herman Frank Cash, whose family ran a barbecue restaurant that became a hangout for Klansmen, died untried.

Thomas E. Blanton Jr., who once laughed with Mr. Cherry about the bombing on an F.B.I. surveillance tape, was convicted last year, and has also been sentenced to life in prison. He sits in solitary confinement, for his own protection, at St. Clair Correctional Facility. None of them ever broke under F.B.I. pressure to name the others, and none of them ever confessed.

Even as bailiffs took out their handcuffs, getting ready to take him away to begin serving his sentence, Mr. Cherry said he was innocent, said he was the victim of a campaign of lies. When Judge Garrett asked him if he had anything to say, he motioned to the prosecutors. "This whole bunch have lied all through this thing," said Mr. Cherry, who was indicted two years ago after the case was reopened in the mid-1990's. "I've told the truth. I don't know why I'm going to jail for nothing."

Just feet away, the surviving family members of his victims, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, sat in a single row of metal folding chairs, all dry-eyed, outwardly impassive. It was as if they were determined to send Bobby Frank Cherry into the bleakness of his future without letting him see even one more glimpse of the pain that he had caused. "I didn't do anything," Mr. Cherry said, again. A bailiff locked a set of handcuffs on his wrists, with a loud, ratcheting sound. "Good luck," Judge Garrett said.

Mr. Cherry vanished through a side door and, as far as many of his victims are concerned, into a dark place in history.

Outside the courtroom, Ms. Rudolph remembered wandering in the blackness of the church basement, bleeding from her eyes. The four girls' bodies lay unseen. "I couldn't find my way," she said. For a lifetime, she waited for this day, when the last person linked to her sister's death would be swept up in the change Dr. King talked about. "My mama always prayed," she said.

But it was better, for some of the relatives to think about the girls before they were broken and bleeding. Eunice Davis, the sister of Cynthia Wesley, thought back to when she and Cynthia would stuff twine through the neck of an RC Cola bottle, and call it a doll. Ms. Davis has decided not to hate Mr. Cherry. "He just don't know better," she said.

Hours later, in the cool dark of the bar in The Tutwiler Hotel, the prosecution team sat alone in a quiet celebration. "It is as complete and as satisfying as a human being could ever hope," said Doug Jones, the lead prosecutor, who skipped law school class to attend the trial of Mr. Chambliss in 1977. In closing arguments, prosecutors kept referring to a picture of 11-year-old Denise McNair clutching a pink-skinned, blond-haired doll.

"A picture of Denise, taken by her father, a snapshot of the reason she died," said Mr. Jones, referring to the mingling of the races that Mr. Cherry so despised. "It is also an image of hope, a dream, if you will."

It was what Dr. King, who would die from an assassin's bullet in Memphis, had hoped might come from the worst thing that had ever happened — or ever would — in that struggle. "This afternoon, we gather in the quiet of this sanctuary to pay our last tribute of respect to these beautiful children of God," he said at their funeral. "Now the curtain falls. They move through the exit. The drama of their earthly life comes to a close. These children, unoffending, innocent, and beautiful."

Copyright 2002
The New York Times Company