---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Thu, 23 May 2002 20:31:25 -0700
From: radtimes <email@example.com>
Subject: 38 Years Later, Last of Suspects Is Convicted in Church Bombing
May 23, 2002
38 YEARS LATER, LAST OF SUSPECTS IS CONVICTED IN CHURCH BOMBING
By RICK BRAGG
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
"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
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
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,
"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."
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