BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – A hearing could finally resolve the question of whether a former Ku Klux Klansman will stand trial for murder in a 1963 church bombing that killed four black girls.
Circuit Judge James Garrett on Monday is to hear testimony and review reports from experts who observed Bobby Frank Cherry while he was confined at a state mental health facility for about 10 weeks.
Garrett previously ruled Cherry, 72, mentally incompetent to stand trial in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. He could either reverse or uphold that decision based on the experts' opinions.
Under an order from Garrett, results of the lengthy evaluation at the state-run Taylor Hardin Secure Medical Facility have not been made public.
While the defense claims Cherry is incompetent, state experts do not often reach a similar finding. Officials of the Alabama Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation have said 80 percent to 90 percent of the criminal defendants the agency screens are deemed fit for trial.
"Although the court will have any number of options, we are hopeful that following the hearing we will have some definitive word on how this case will proceed," prosecutor Doug Jones said Friday.
Defense attorney Rodger Bass did not return a telephone call seeking comment.
Cherry and another ex-Klansman, Thomas Blanton Jr., were indicted on murder charges last year in the bombing. Garrett delayed trial for Cherry because of questions about his competency, but Blanton was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment this year. One other Klansman, Robert Chambliss, was convicted of murder in the bombing in 1977 and died in prison. A fourth suspect died without being charged.
Garrett ruled Cherry incompetent after four mental health experts testified the retired truck driver suffered from varying degrees of vascular dementia, which can cause confusion and forgetfulness. The judge's decision sparked picketing of the courthouse and a march by black demonstrators.
The judge later ordered the additional testing at the prosecution's request.
One of the issues to be addressed at the hearing was which legal standard Garrett will use in determining whether Cherry is competent.
In his earlier decision, Garrett said the state failed to prove by "clear, convincing and unequivocal" evidence that Cherry was able to understand the proceedings and assist his attorneys.
Prosecutors have asked Garrett to use a lesser standard, requiring them to prove Cherry's competence only by a "preponderance of the evidence," the same measure used in most civil proceedings.
Cherry's attorneys could argue that Garrett should use the more rigid standard.
Cherry was accused of being part of a group of Klansmen who planted a bomb that ripped through the downtown church on Sept. 15, 1963, killing Denise McNair, 11, and 14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson.