MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Bobby Frank Cherry (search), convicted of killing four black girls in a racially motivated bombing of a Birmingham church in 1963, died Thursday in prison. He was 74.
Cherry, suffering from cancer, died in the hospital unit at Kilby Correctional Facility (search) in Montgomery, a Department of Corrections spokesman said.
Cherry was convicted in May 2002 in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, a gathering place for civil rights demonstrators in Birmingham, and was sentenced to life in prison. It was the deadliest act of the civil rights era.
Cherry was among three former Ku Klux Klan members convicted in the bombing, which killed the four girls as they were preparing to take part in a Sunday morning service.
Thomas Blanton (search) was convicted in 2001 and is serving a life prison sentence. Robert Chambliss, convicted in 1977, also died in prison.
The Sept. 15, 1963, explosion killed Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, all 14, and Denise McNair, 11.
Collins' sister, Sarah Collins Rudolph, lost an eye in the blast but her husband expressed sorrow that Cherry had died.
"I hope he was saved. I hope he repented," George C. Rudolph said.
Cherry had been ill for some time and complained last summer he was not receiving proper treatment and was being held as a political prisoner.
His daughter, Karen Sunderland, said the family would take Cherry's body to Texas, where she lives and where her father had moved in the early 1970s, for burial.
"He was a good man," she said, sobbing.
The bomb shook downtown Birmingham as church members prepared for a youth-led Sunday worship service. The city's public schools had been integrated a few days earlier after a six-year court fight, and tensions had been running high.
While Cherry, Blanton and Chambliss were all considered suspects within days afterward, the case went unsolved for years until then-Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley (search) reopened the investigation and successfully prosecuted Chambliss in 1977.
Cherry and Blanton were prosecuted years later after new evidence, including FBI files, became available.
Though Cherry always denied involvement in the bombing, both publicly and in interviews with investigators, prosecutors reopened the case in 1995 and found five estranged family members and acquaintances who said Cherry boasted of taking part.
"He said he lit the fuse," ex-wife Willadean Brogdon testified at his trial.
He was convicted May 22, 2002, by a jury of nine whites and three blacks after prosecutors painted him as a staunch segregationist who was upset about the schools' integration.
Asked for comment after the verdict, Cherry stood and pointed at prosecutors: "This whole bunch lied all the way through this thing. I told the truth. I don't know why I'm going to jail for nothing."
In an appeal, Cherry argued witnesses who might have helped his case could not be located because of the long delay. He also argued that it was unfair to hold the trial in Birmingham, a city rich with civil rights history and where the case received extensive news coverage.
The appeals court disagreed, saying coverage was "factual, objective and non-sensational." It also said it was not the prosecution's fault FBI files were not available earlier.