By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Afterward, Bobby Birdwell, once a boyhood friend of Tom Cherry, was called to the stand to identify one of the attackers shown beating the minister. The wavy-haired man with a cigarette dangling from his lips, he testified, was a young Bobby Frank Cherry.
Birdwell, 11 at the time of the bombing, told of an afternoon visit to the defendant's home just days before the church bombing. Cherry and three other men, he recalled, were seated at the kitchen table as he entered to get a glass of water. "I heard them mention 'bomb' and 'Sixteenth Street,'" he told the jury. He also remembered seeing a white robe, similar to those worn by Klan members, draped across the couch in the living room.
Witness Michael Gowins recalled a mid-'80s conversation with Cherry, whom he had hired to clean carpets in a Dallas apartment complex he managed at the time. After the two men realized they were both originally from Birmingham, he testified, Cherry had spoken openly of his involvement in the church bombing.
Retired FBI agent John Downey, who had interviewed Cherry a year after the bombing, remembered the defendant repeatedly denying any involvement in the crime but saying, "The only reason I didn't do the church bombing was because someone beat me to it."
For the aging defendant, the testimony would only become more damaging in the days to come. His ex-wife, Brogdon, took the stand to repeat what she had earlier detailed for the grand jury. She told of a time shortly after their 1970 marriage when Cherry's car had broken down near the rebuilt Sixteenth Street Church. "I went to get him, and he said that was the church where he put the bomb," she testified. "He said he got out of the car and put the bomb under the stairs the night before. He said he lit the fuse."
Brogdon then told the jury that her former husband had expressed regret that the four children were killed, only to add, "At least they can't grow up to have any more niggers."
Then Teresa Stacy described sitting on the porch of the Cherrys' Texas home and hearing her grandfather tell of "blowing up a bunch of niggers back in Birmingham." "He seemed rather jovial, braggish," she testified.
After a week of testimony, on May 22, the jury deliberated less than seven hours during a two-day period before returning with a guilty verdict on four counts of murder. The life sentence he was dealt and his failing health all but assure he will spend what time remains for him behind bars.
If there is repentance for the crime of which he was convicted, even the bigoted attitude that finally caused his downfall, it is yet to come. Asked by the judge at trial's end if he had anything he wished to say, Cherry quickly lashed out at those who had testified against him. "This whole bunch lied all the way through this thing," he said, pointing to the nearby prosecutors. "I told the truth. I don't know why I'm going to jail for nothing."
By then, Tom Cherry, subpoenaed as a witness but never asked to testify, was headed back to Texas, fearful that his father would be convicted and knowing that his family was irreparably shattered. Years ago, his siblings who stood firmly in his father's corner had issued a "you're with us or against us" ultimatum, which he chose to ignore. As a result, they no longer speak to him. "I've got one sister I still talk to; that's about it," he says.
His relationship with his daughter, Teresa Stacy, is now strained. "We did finally have a long talk one night in Birmingham during the trial," he says. "I told her that despite everything that had happened, everything we'd disagreed about, I still want to be a part of her life and a part of my grandkids' lives. There were a lot of tears, and we hugged." She told her father that she would be in touch after she returned home but is yet to do so.
Stacy isn't likely to. "We talked [in Birmingham]," she says, "but it was all pretty superficial. My father wouldn't know the truth if it hit him in the face. He still seems to be able to forgive just about everything his dad ever did."
A stay-at-home mom, Stacy now looks back on her involvement in the prosecution of her grandfather as "a shameful experience" that she is glad to have behind her but quickly adds, "If there is justice in the universe, he will be shoveling shit in hell."
Which leaves little doubt about her feelings for Bobby Frank Cherry. But does she anticipate ever making that call to her dad? "No," she says.
Perhaps, her father suggests, the damage that has been done is too severe to overcome. "I think maybe there's been too much said," he somberly admits. "Too many lies have been told. A misunderstanding, I can understand, but a blatant lie I can't deal with.
"If it hadn't been for so many witnesses who I know lied," he reflects, "I'd have no problem [with the verdict]." Boyhood friend Bobby Birdwell, he insists, was never inside the Cherry home. "He told a bald-faced lie." And his father's ex-wife "lied through her teeth."