Trial begins in '63 church bombing that killed four

Wednesday, May 15, 2002

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- A trial that could finally close one of the ugliest chapters of the civil rights era -- the 1963 church bombing that killed four black girls -- opened Tuesday with a prosecutor saying Bobby Frank Cherry boasted of the crime as if it were "a Klan medal."

"He has worn this crime on his chest like a badge of honor," prosecutor Robert Posey told the mostly white jury. "He said his only regret was that more people hadn't died in this bombing."

An attorney for the 71-year-old former Ku Klux Klansman countered that everyone who claims to have heard Cherry's boasts -- including a granddaughter and a former brother-in-law -- is "inherently unreliable."

"He did not say this," defense attorney Mickey Johnson said.

Cherry could get life in prison if convicted.

The trial represents one of the biggest pieces of unfinished business from the civil rights movement. The bombing galvanized protesters and helped bring about new civil rights laws, but also haunted Birmingham for almost four decades.

The girls were in the basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church, getting ready for a Sunday morning service, when the dynamite bomb tore through a wall on Sept. 15, 1963.

Killed were Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins and Cynthia Wesley, all 14, and Denise McNair, 11.

Cherry and other Klansmen were suspected from the start, but the FBI was reluctant to press the case in the segregationist city.

It was more than a decade before the first suspect was tried, and nearly two more decades passed before the investigation was reopened.

A second suspect was convicted last year, but Cherry's trial was delayed when a judge ruled him mentally incompetent because of brain damage. The judge reversed himself after experts said Cherry was faking.

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