Church bombing defendant found guilty of first-degree murder
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (CNN) -- The latest chapter in U.S. civil rights history was concluded in an Alabama courtroom Wednesday when a jury found a former Ku Klux Klansman guilty of first-degree murder in a 1963 church bombing that killed four African-American schoolgirls.
Bobby Frank Cherry, who maintained his innocence all the way to the verdict, was sentenced to life in prison.
The jury of six white women, three white men and three black men deliberated for a total of seven hours Tuesday and Wednesday before returning its verdict. Cherry, 71, could also could have been found guilty of second-degree murder or manslaughter.
A sister of one the the victims, Eunia Davis, said she felt sorry for Cherry because -- she said -- Cherry was in denial about the crime. "He still won't admit [that he committed the crime] and the only way he can be released is that he has got to admit to what he did," Davis said.
"The whole bunch lied all the way through this thing. ... I don't know why I'm going to jail for nothing. I haven't done anything," Cherry told the judge after the verdict was read.
Circuit Judge James Garrett immediately sentenced Cherry, and said, "Good luck, sir" before Cherry was led from the courtroom.
Cherry was charged with four counts of murder and four counts of arson in the slayings at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. He was accused of helping a group of Klansmen plant a bomb that exploded on September 15, 1963, as worshippers arrived for services.
It killed 11-year-old Denise McNair and 14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley.
Another sister of one of the victims, Junie Collins Peaby, expressed relief. "I felt a real great release in trying to figure out if justice was going to come," Peaby said. "But just as I heard justice had come, it set me free in a whole lot of concerns."
Prosecutor Doug Jones called Cherry and his alleged co-conspirators "the forefathers of terrorism" in closing arguments Tuesday.
"Bobby Frank Cherry is a murderer who has lived among us, " Jones told the jurors, referring to the 39 years since the crime that Cherry has lived as a free man.
Two other men have been convicted in the bombing.
Robert Chambliss, known as "Dynamite Bob," was convicted of murder in 1977 and died in prison. Ex-Klansman Thomas Blanton Jr. was convicted of murder last year and was sentenced to life in prison. A fourth suspect, Herman Cash died in 1994 without being charged.
Cherry was to have gone on trial with Blanton, but Cherry's trial was delayed over questions about his mental competence.
Referring to the previous convictions, defense attorney Mickey Johnson argued, "We are not going to let the state convict purely on guilt by association."
Johnson admitted that his client's former membership in the Ku Klux Klan was a strike against him, but he urged jurors had to look beyond that in weighing their verdict.
The key defense witness Saturday was 78-year-old Mary Cunningham, an informant for the FBI in the 1960s, who denied information in a 1964 FBI memo that quoted her as saying she had seen Cherry plant the bomb at the church.
"I did not make that claim. ... I didn't do it. I didn't see it," Cunningham testified.
Witnesses for the prosecution included family members who said Cherry had talked about being involved in the bombing.
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