Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Birmingham Church Bombing: Bombingham

The Last Klansman

Robert Chambliss mugshot
Robert Chambliss mugshot

Bobby Frank Cherry was 71 in 2002. He moved from Alabama to Texas back in the 1970s when Attorney General Bill Baxley reopened the bombing investigation. When Chambliss was convicted in 1977, he figured he was next. But it never happened. Cherry moved from job to job. He worked as a truck driver, a clerk, a welder and drove a cab. It was reported that he was married five times and fathered 15 children. Cherry was questioned many times by the FBI and other investigators in the case, but he never admitted to anything relating to the Sixteenth Street church. Once in 1965, when he was asked about his involvement, he reportedly said to cops, "That's when the Fifth Amendment will come in handy."

Bobby Frank Cherry
Bobby Frank Cherry

After the Blanton conviction, momentum began to build. Though his attorneys had appealed to the court to excuse Cherry because of alleged brain deterioration, many people didn't believe it. "The delay the court has given Mr. Cherry," said Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, "makes it possible that he may confront his maker before he confronts a judge."

Thomas Blanton Jr. in custody
Thomas Blanton Jr. in custody

Prosecutors later brought psychologists to the stand who testified Cherry was faking it. In January 2002, Judge James Garrett ruled that Cherry was competent and the rusty wheels of justice began to turn again. "This is an easy man to prosecute," one attorney told the press, "because he is the human equivalent of a cockroach." The trial began in May 2002. U.S. Attorney Doug Jones would again lead the prosecution team.

Jones put Cherry's former wife, Willadean Brogdon, on the stand. "He said he lit the fuse," she told the court. Also damaging to Cherry was his own granddaughter, Teresa Stacy. "He said he helped blow up a bunch of niggers back in Birmingham," she calmly told the court. Other witnesses testified of Cherry's recent statements in which he bragged about the bombing repeatedly. The secret tapes, which were recorded by the FBI back in 1964 and helped to convict Thomas Blanton Jr. were again allowed into evidence. These conversations showed that Cherry was not only a Klan member but associated with Blanton and Chambliss for years, which he initially denied to investigators.

In his closing argument, U.S. Attorney Jones told the jury that Cherry "was a murderer who lived among us." He said that Blanton, Chambliss, Cash and the defendant were the "forefathers of terrorism." After six hours of deliberations, the jury of six white women, three white men and three black men found Cherry guilty on all counts. He was sentenced to life in prison. At his sentencing, Cherry told the court that he was framed.

"The whole bunch lied all the way through this," he said, "I don't know why I'm going to jail for nothing!"

But his protestations fell mostly on deaf ears. In the back of the courtroom sat Sarah Collins Rudolph, 51, who lost her sister Addie in the 1963 explosion. "I feel at ease now," she later told the press, "We have been waiting on this day for a long time!" Sitting in the back of the courtroom at the moment of the verdict, the veteran civil rights warrior and witness to the explosion that killed four of his flock, Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, all of 80 years old, contemplated the gift of justice in the twilight of his life.

"Justice will shine for black and white people now," he told reporters.

Cherry died, at age 74, in the Kilby Corrctional Facility in Montgomery, Alabama on November 18, 2004, after a long illness.

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