An Alabama judge ruled Monday that former Ku Klux Klansmen Bobby Frank Cherry is mentally incompetent to stand trial for the 1963 church bombing that killed four black girls.
Circuit Judge James S. Garrett said Cherry presented enough evidence during a hearing last week to show he was not fit to stand trial on murder charges in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing, the deadliest act of the civil rights era.
Garrett's seven-page decision said the state "was not able to meet the burden of proof by clear, convincing and unequivocal evidence" to prove Cherry could assist his attorneys and understand the proceedings.
Garrett scheduled another hearing for Aug. 10 and said he will order further testing by the Alabama Department of Mental Health.
Defense lawyer Rodger Bass said he had mixed feelings about the decision.
"I'm happy in one sense of the word, but he's got to go through more tests," said Bass, who contends Cherry had no role in the bombing. "Let's get off this 38-year witch hunt and get to who did it. Those four little girls deserve better."
Cherry could be committed to a state hospital for treatment or the public's protection under state law, or he could be sent home with the charges dismissed.
Garrett's order did not mention what option he was considering.
Bass said there was no reason to commit Cherry. "He's not a threat to himself or anyone else," Bass said.
Prosecutor Doug Jones didn't criticize the ruling, saying it's consistent with a state law that sets "next an impossible burden."
Cherry may never be tried because his mental illness is getting progressively worse unless the ruling is reversed, Jones said.
"The door is closing quickly" on any prosecution, Jones said.
During the competency hearing, four experts who examined Cherry agreed he had dementia of varying degrees, but only two of them said he was incompetent.
Prosecutors claimed Cherry, a 72-year-old retired truck driver, feigned mental problems to avoid trial. But a court expert, Dr. Jack Modell, said Cherry's condition was so bad it was virtually impossible for someone to fake such symptoms.
Garrett appeared to give Modell's evaluation the greatest weight.
"The examination by Dr. Modell was considerably more expansive than the examinations of the other doctors," Garrett wrote.
Cherry, who was living in Mabank, Texas, when he was indicted last year, is free on bond living near Birmingham.
Cherry was indicted on charges of being one of a handful of Klansmen who bombed the church, a rallying site for black demonstrators seeking to end segregation in schools and public accommodations.
Two other ex-Klansmen have been convicted in the bombing, the deadliest act of the civil rights movement.
Thomas Blanton Jr. was convicted May 1 in the bombing and is serving a life sentence. Cherry was set to stand trial with Blanton, but Garrett postponed the case because of questions about Cherry's competency.
Robert Chambliss was convicted in the bombing in 1977 and died in prison. A fourth suspect, Herman Cash, died without being charged.
The blast killed 11-year-old Denise McNair and 14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson.
Relatives of the victims had no immediate comment on Garrett's decision. But the Rev. Abraham Woods, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Birmingham, has called Cherry a "terrorist."
"The world's spotlight was going to be on Birmingham and Alabama -- some of us was hoping we were ready to join the 21st century," Woods said. "But this verdict makes the statement loud and clear that the justice system is not blind, that there isn't always justice for black folks."
The Associated Press contributed to this report