Man gets 14 years for black church arson after Obama's win

Reuters News
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Posted: Dec 22, 2011 3:38 PM
Man gets 14 years for black church arson after Obama's win

(Reuters) - A white man convicted of burning down a mostly black church to condemn Barack Obama's election as the nation's first black president in November 2008 was sentenced on Thursday to nearly 14 years in prison.

The arson fire on November 5, 2008, just hours after election results were announced, destroyed the nearly-finished Macedonia Church of God in Christ in Springfield, Massachusetts, about 90 miles west of Boston.

Prosecutors alleged in a three-week trial last spring that Michael Jacques, 27, of Springfield, and two white friends were motivated by racial resentment when they doused the building with gasoline and torched it.

The church's congregation was about 90 percent African American and authorities said the white men wanted to denounce Obama's victory earlier that night.

Judge Michael Ponsor in U.S. District Court in Springfield on Thursday sentenced Jacques to 166 months in federal prison for his role in the hate crime, Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Smyth, the lead prosecutor in the case, told Reuters.

Jacques had faced between 10 and 60 years in prison.

The prison term is to be followed by four years of supervised release. Jacques was also ordered to pay nearly $1.6 million in restitution, including $123,570 to the church.

"I think the sentence is fair and reasonable, and it sends a message that hatred and intolerance will not be tolerated," Smyth said.

On April 14, a jury convicted Jacques of conspiracy to violate civil rights, religious property damage because of race and damage to religious property by use of fire.

Two other men charged in the hate crime, Benjamin Haskell and Thomas Gleason, already have pleaded guilty to similar charges. Haskell was sentenced in November 2010 to nine years in federal prison, and Gleason, who testified for the prosecution in the trial, will be sentenced in January.

Prosecutors said Gleason lived near the church and the three men spent election night drinking beer and smoking marijuana together before they agreed to go burn it down early the next morning.

Jacques tried unsuccessfully to have his confession thrown out before trial. He argued that state police and the FBI had falsely obtained it during a more than six-hour interview while he was suffering from withdrawal from nicotine and the pain-killer Percocet.

No worshipers were inside the building at the time of the fire. The rebuilt church reopened to worshipers in September.

In the days immediately after the blaze, the FBI briefed the President-elect and the U.S. Attorney General about the arson. U.S. authorities said the hate crime was the only one of its kind on election night.

(Reporting by Zach Howard. Editing by Lauren Keiper and Greg McCune)