The Ghosts Of Alabama

Bobby Frank Cherry didn't hide his hatred of black people or his membership in the Klan. While he was married to Willadean Brogdon, she testified last week, he would put on his white robe "and dance all around," just to show her kids what a Klansman was like. Their 1970 marriage lasted only three years, but Brogdon says Cherry told her plenty. The worst of it was that he had set the bomb that blew up the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963. The explosion shook the city and killed four young African-American girls. Sometimes Cherry would get a little teary when he talked about it, Brogdon testified. But then he would check himself and say something like, "At least they can't grow up to have any more n-----s."

Now 72, Cherry is the last of four suspects to go on trial for the Birmingham bombing. He faces four counts of murder and, if convicted--if his lawyers can't shake the damning testimony from Brogdon and others--he will go to prison for the rest of his life. That is cold comfort to those who note that the search for justice has taken 38 years, but at least it will close the books. The first suspect, Robert (Dynamite Bob) Chambliss, was convicted in 1977 and died in prison in 1985. The second, Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr., 63, was convicted a year ago and is serving a life sentence. Another suspect, Frank Herman Cash, died in 1994 without ever facing charges. Cherry was supposed to be tried last year but claimed to be mentally incompetent; he was later found to be faking. Last week he sat impassively as the prosecution presented its case and at times appeared to be dozing.

The 16th Street Church case is one of several significant civil rights investigations exhumed during the Clinton administration after years of official neglect. It is based largely on an FBI probe of the Eastview 13 Klavern of the United Klans of America, a Birmingham-area organization that allegedly included Cherry, Chambliss, Blanton and Cash. There was no forensic evidence; FBI experts weren't able to determine how the bomb was triggered. Brogdon testified that Cherry, Chambliss and Blanton were together the night that the bomb was built. Witness Bobby Birdwell testified he saw Cherry talking with three other men and heard the words "bomb" and "16th Street." And Brogdon, under persistent questioning from the defense, said Cherry told her he placed the bomb under a stairwell on Saturday night and returned the next morning to light the fuse.

The defense gets its turn this week and the thrust of its strategy is clear: Cherry is not guilty, there is no hard evidence and the witnesses aren't telling the truth. His lawyers say the FBI had targeted Cherry all along, then tailored the case to fit. So the jurors will have to decide who's credible, and whether there is any truth to the testimony from Brogdon's nephew George Ferris. He said Cherry once regretted lighting the fuse when he did--because if he had waited, the church would have been full.