Prosecutor: Obama election church fire was racism

AP News
Posted: Apr 11, 2011 6:32 PM
Prosecutor: Obama election church fire was racism

Racism that had been brewing for years "reached its boiling point" when a white man and two friends burned a predominantly black church in the hours after President Barack Obama's 2008 election, a federal prosecutor said Monday in closing arguments.

Michael Jacques and two friends were charged with setting fire to the Macedonia Church of God in Christ in Springfield. The other two men pleaded guilty and implicated Jacques, who would face 10 to 60 years in prison if convicted of conspiracy against civil rights, damage to religious property and other charges.

Jacques' attorney said in her closing argument Monday that Jacques didn't set the fire. She also said incriminating statements he made on taped conversations were just bragging about something he didn't do, and a videotaped confession to police was coerced.

"Michael Jacques confessed because they finally wore him down," defense attorney Lori Levinson told the jury, which is to begin deliberations Tuesday morning. "Michael Jacques confessed because he was a Percocet addict who was separated from his drug ... but he did not do it."

Prosecutor Nicole Lee Ndumele said Jacques told friends that Obama's election meant blacks and Puerto Ricans were taking over the country. She said he confessed several times to his involvement in the fire to a friend and law enforcement officials.

Ndumele said the young men often used racial epithets, and Jacques once set a dog on a black person, who still has a scar from the attack. Jacques' family testified that the dog belonged to a co-defendant and wouldn't listen to Jacques' commands.

"It was pure unadulterated racism that fueled Jacques and his friends to set this fire," she said.

The prosecutor said Jacques confessed several times to involvement in the fire _ twice to a friend, once to an undercover officer during tape-recorded conversations and to the state trooper and federal agent. That confession was videotaped and portions shown to the jury, an all-white panel that includes 12 regular members and three alternates

But Levinson said when Jacques talked about the church fire in a conversation taped by the undercover police officer, he was actually playing up his "arson credentials" for co-defendant Benjamin Haskell because the undercover officer had offered them arson-for-hire jobs.

Levinson also said Jacques denied the crime for most of the hours-long interrogation.

She also questioned evidence that Jacques was racist, noting that he had a Puerto Rican girlfriend for three years and also loves his biracial nephew. A photo of Jacques carrying his 3-year-old nephew on his shoulders was on video monitors in the courtroom during Levinson's closing argument.

Earlier Monday, Jacques' mother and sister testified they never saw him show racist behavior.

Jacques' sister, Amy Jacques, was 15 when she had a son with a 27-year-old black man. She testified that her brother loves the child unconditionally and said she has never heard her brother make racists comments about him.

"If he was a racist, he would have nothing to do with me," Amy Jacques said. "Being that my son is biracial, it's not logical."

Jacques' two friends admitted they were involved in setting the fire. Haskell was sentenced to nine years in prison in November. Thomas Gleason pleaded guilty last year and awaits sentencing after testifying in Jacques' trial for the prosecution.

The church was under construction and nearly 75 percent completed when it burned down. The congregation, which continues to worship at its longtime home on King Street, decided to rebuild, and the new church is nearing completion on the same site.