Mass. jurors weigh Obama-related church fire case

AP News
Posted: Apr 13, 2011 5:59 PM
Mass. jurors weigh Obama-related church fire case

A federal jury on Wednesday told a judge that it was deadlocked on two of the three charges in the trial of a white man accused of burning down a predominantly black church hours after President Barack Obama's election in 2008.

U.S. District Judge Michael Ponsor told the jurors in the case of 26-year-old Michael Jacques not to become discouraged and to start deliberations fresh on Thursday morning.

Jacques and two friends were charged with setting fire to the Macedonia Church of God in Christ in Springfield, in what prosecutors said was racist anger over the election of the country's first black president. The building, near all three men's homes, was under construction at the time and is now being rebuilt. No one was seriously injured.

The all-white jury told Ponsor it was hung on two charges, conspiracy against civil rights and destruction of religious property. The remaining charge is use of fire to commit a felony. The three charges combined carry 10 to 60 years in prison.

Deliberations began Tuesday after a 15-day trial, and Ponsor told lawyers outside of the jury's presence he thought it was too early Wednesday to be getting a note from the panel saying it was deadlocked.

Ponsor may give jurors on Thursday the so-called Allen charge, a set of formal instructions for deadlocked juries. But he worried he would only be able to give the charge once and then have to declare a mistrial if jurors still say they can't agree. Prosecutors could seek a second trial.

"Don't be discouraged," Ponsor told the jury. "This case was 15 days of trial. That's a lot of time to take in evidence."

Jurors asked two other questions Wednesday. The first was if they could continue deliberating on the destruction of religious property and use of fire charges if they deadlocked on the civil rights charge. Ponsor told them yes.

Jurors also asked how long after Jacques' confession to police did he recant and claim it was coerced. Ponsor said he couldn't answer because that wasn't part of the trial evidence.

Jacques confessed at the end of a nearly seven-hour, videotaped police interrogation. He later said authorities wore him down and he admitted setting the fire only because he was suffering withdrawal from his Percocet painkiller addiction.

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