TRIAL unlikely for ex-Klansman found incompetent in deadly 1963 Birmingham church bombing

Tuesday, July 17th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) _ A former Ku Klux Klansman charged with murder in the 1963 church bombing that killed four black girls will likely never be tried now that a judge has ruled him mentally incompetent.

Circuit Judge James S. Garrett said Monday that defense lawyers presented enough evidence during a hearing last week to show Bobby Frank Cherry, 72, wasn't mentally fit to stand trial in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.

``We're disappointed, but we rest assured that we have done all we could,'' Prosecutor Doug Jones said.

Jones said no appeal was expected and the charges against Cherry would likely be dismissed

The Sept. 15, 1963, bomb ripped through an exterior wall of the brick church in Birmingham. The bodies of Denise McNair, 11, and Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, all 14, were found in the downstairs lounge.

The church had been a rallying site for black demonstrators seeking to end segregation in schools and public accommodations. The bombing, the single deadliest act against the movement for racial equality in the South, was a galvanizing moment of the civil rights movement.

Cherry was indicted on charges of being one of a handful of Klansmen who bombed the church. Two other ex-Klansmen were eventually convicted in the blast.

Garrett's seven-page decision issued Monday said the prosecution ``was not able to meet the burden of proof by clear, convincing and unequivocal evidence'' that Cherry could assist his attorneys and understand the proceedings.

During the competency hearing for Cherry, four experts who examined Cherry agreed he had dementia of varying degrees, but only two of them said he was incompetent.

Prosecutors claimed the retired truck driver feigned mental problems to avoid a trial. But a court-appointed expert, Dr. Jack Modell, said it would be virtually impossible for someone to fake such symptoms.

The judge appeared to give Modell's evaluation the greatest weight. ``The examination by Dr. Modell was considerably more expansive than the examinations of the other doctors,'' Garrett wrote.

Garrett scheduled another hearing for Aug. 10 and said he would order further testing by the Alabama Department of Mental Health. Jones said the hearing is to decide how the exam will be conducted, not to reconsider the competency finding.

``I'm happy in one sense of the word, but he's got to go through more tests,'' said defense lawyer Rodger Bass, who contends Cherry had no role in the bombing. ``Let's get off this 38-year witch hunt and get to who did it. Those four little girls deserve better.''

Cherry could be committed to a state hospital for treatment or sent home with the charges dismissed. Garrett's order did not mention what option he was considering, but Jones said there was no evidence Cherry was a threat to the public.

Civil rights leader Abraham Woods said the judge's decision ``makes the statement loud and clear that the justice system is not blind, that there isn't always justice for black folks.''

Relatives of the victims had no immediate comment.

Cherry, who was living in Mabank, Texas, when he was indicted last year, is free on bond and living near Birmingham.

Ex-Klansman Thomas Blanton Jr. was convicted in the bombing in May and sentenced to life in prison. Robert Chambliss was convicted in 1977 and died in prison. A fourth suspect, Herman Cash, died without being charged.