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Tuesday, 14 May, 2002, 22:13 GMT 23:13 UK
Klan church bombing trial opens
Bombing scene at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church
The attack was one of the worst of the civil rights era
Prosecutors have told a court in Alabama how a former member of the white supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan boasted of bombing a church in which four black girls died in 1963.

Assistant US Attorney Robert Posey said that Bobby Frank Cherry wore the infamous civil-rights era crime "like a Klan medal".


The bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church became Bobby Frank Cherry's claim to fame

Prosecutor Robert Posey
But a defence lawyer said the people who claimed to have heard the boasts were "inherently unreliable".

Mr Cherry, 71, is charged with four counts of murder and four of arson. He denies any involvement in the attack. If convicted, he faces life in jail.

The explosion at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, in September 1963, was a defining moment of the civil-rights era.

It still stands as one of America's worst incidents of racial violence.

Focus for campaigning

On the opening day of the trial at Jefferson County Circuit Court, prosecution and defence lawyers both outlined their cases.

Mr Posey said the church had been a focal point for many blacks campaigning to desegregate Birmingham's public facilities.

He said the bombing by the Ku Klux Klan had come five days after the desegregation of Birmingham schools.

Bobby Frank Cherry
Mr Cherry denies any involvement in the attack
"It was designed as an instrument of terror to force back the tide of civil rights progress," Mr Posey said.

He said the trial would show that Mr Cherry was part of a group of Klansmen who had planned and carried out the crime, and had boasted of his involvement.

Mr Posey said the evidence would include tape recordings and testimony from witnesses and explosives experts.

"The bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church became Bobby Frank Cherry's claim to fame," he said. "He has worn this crime on his chest like a badge of honour, like a Klan medal".

Defence case

Mr Cherry's lawyer, Mickey Johnson, told the court that there was no forensic evidence to link his client to the crime and the case was based on the word of unreliable people, some of whom later recanted their accounts of events.

"You will not see a credible witness take the stand and tell you (Cherry) would have boasted of this," Mr Johnson said.

He said the investigation into the bombing had focused on the Ku Klux Klan when there were other groups which could have carried it out.

The explosion killed Denise McNair, 11, along with Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Addie Mae Collins, all 14, as they got ready for a Sunday morning service.

Denise's parents and Carole's mother sat on the front row as the trial opened.

Snapshots of various scenes of the bombing and the girls who died were shown on the court's television monitors.

Indictment delayed

Mr Cherry, a retired trucker, who lives in Mabank, Texas, was questioned by the FBI immediately after the blast.

But he was only indicted in August 2000, along with another former Klansman, Thomas Blanton Jr, who was subsequently found guilty and is serving four life sentences.

Mr Cherry was not on trial then because a judge ruled he was not mentally competent, but experts later assessed him and concluded he was faking mental illness.

Another Klansman, Robert Chambliss, was convicted of the bombing in 1977. A fourth suspect, Herman Cash, died without being charged.

The jury consists of four black men, nine white women and three white men. Four will eventually be removed to make a jury of 12.

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The BBC's Steve Kingstone
"This passage in history is about to end"
See also:

03 Jan 02 | Americas
Klansman 'fit for trial'
17 Jul 01 | Americas
Klansman 'unfit to face trial'
02 May 01 | Americas
KKK man gets life
16 Apr 01 | Americas
Racist church bombing trial opens
18 May 00 | Americas
Klansmen deny church bombing
18 May 00 | Americas
Two accused of racist bombing
22 Sep 00 | Americas
US report admits racism
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