updated 11/18/2004 8:04:35 PM ET 2004-11-19T01:04:35

Bobby Frank Cherry, 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 died about 3:30 p.m. (4:30 p.m. ET) in the hospital unit at Kilby Correctional Facility in Montgomery, said a spokesman for the Department of Corrections. He had been ill for some time.

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 one of three former Ku Klux Klan members who were convicted in the bombing, which killed the four girls as they were preparing to take part in a Sunday morning service. Thomas Blanton was convicted in 2001 and is serving a life prison sentence. Robert Chambliss, convicted in 1977, also died in prison.

The explosion on Sept. 15, 1963, 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, George C. Rudolph, expressed sorrow that Cherry had died.

“I hope he was saved. I hope he repented,” he said.

Cherry had been ill and complained last summer that 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, for burial.

“He was a good man,” she said, sobbing.

Cherry and Blanton were prosecuted after new evidence, including FBI files, became available.

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