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Man Sentenced for Burning Black Church

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (RNS) The second of three city men termed “shiftless and pathetic” by a judge was sentenced to nearly 14 years in prison for burning a local black church to the ground in the predawn hours after President Barack Obama was elected.
Michael F. Jacques Jr., 27, did not go quietly during a three-year prosecution linked to the 2008 burning of the Macedonia Church of God in Christ in Springfield, Mass. His case included protracted arguments over a false confession, an 11-day trial earlier this year that yielded a hate crime conviction and multiple delays in sentencing proceedings.

But Jacques on Thursday (Dec. 22) accepted his fate wordlessly in U.S. District Court, along with a storm of criticism from law enforcement officials, the church pastor and the sentencing judge.

He also was ordered to pay his share of $1.6 million in restitution to the church and two of its insurance companies. Jacques was convicted of a civil rights violation, malicious destruction of religious property and using arson in the commission of a felony. The civil rights conviction tripped a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence.

Co-defendants Benjamin F. Haskell, 25, and Thomas A. Gleason, 24, previously pleaded guilty in connection with the massive blaze on Nov. 5, 2008.

They both admitted creeping through the woods that separated their homes from the church on Tinkham Road, dousing the partially constructed church with gas and setting it on fire to denounce the election of the nation’s first black president. The pair said Jacques accompanied them.

Gleason, testifying against Jacques in March, admitted that he had outlined the words “hate nigger” in accelerant on the edge of the burn site. Investigators discovered the message after dousing the inferno that swallowed up the church.

Gleason is scheduled for sentencing Jan. 19.

Jacques testified on his own behalf at prior evidentiary hearings, arguing investigators squeezed a false confession out of him while he was in the throes of Percoset withdrawal.

Haskell pleaded guilty last year and is serving a nine-year sentence. He helped implicate his friends by wearing a wire for state police while an undercover trooper recruited them for a phony arson-for-hire.

During Jacques’ sentencing, Macedonia Church leader Bishop Bryant Robinson Jr. offered a stirring address that included a careful narrative of the burning and rebirth of the church, dedicated in September.

Robinson, who came to court in a wheelchair, said he was awoken by a 3 a.m. phone call just hours after celebrating Obama’s win with family members.

“The voice said: ‘They are burning our church to the ground. They are burning our church to the ground,’” Robinson recalled, adding that he saw flames leaping into the sky when he drove up Tinkham Road to see for himself.

The pastor also said he encouraged his congregation to let the justice system punish the fire-setters, rather than pursuing their own “pound of flesh.”

“It would not have been difficult to become inflammatory. It would not have been difficult to exacerbate this,” and lash back in response, Robinson told U.S. District Judge Michael A. Ponsor.

(Stephanie Barry writes for The Republican in Springfield, Mass.)