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Jury convicts Mass. man in Obama-church fire case

Friday, April 15, 2011

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- A federal jury on Thursday convicted a 26-year-old white man of burning down a predominantly black church in Springfield in the hours after Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, a crime prosecutors say was fueled by racist anger.

The all-white, 12-member jury, which had been deadlocked Wednesday, convicted Michael Jacques of conspiracy against civil rights, destruction of religious property and using fire to commit a felony. Jacques faces 10 to 60 years in prison when he is sentenced Sept. 15 in U.S. District Court.

Jacques and two friends were charged with burning down the Macedonia Church of God in Christ in the early morning hours of Nov. 5, 2008. The church, which is near all three men's homes, was under construction at the time and no one was inside. A few firefighters, however, suffered minor injuries battling the blaze.

All three men confessed to the crime and implicated each other. But Jacques later recanted his confession, saying authorities wore him down during a nearly seven-hour interrogation as he suffered withdrawal from addictions to Percocet painkillers and cigarettes.

Prosecutors said during closing arguments that Jacques' racism reached the "boiling point" when Obama was elected. They said he often used racial epithets, expressed anger that minorities were "taking over" the country and once set a dog on a black person.

Jacques' mother and sister testified that he wasn't a racist, saying the proof came in his love for his biracial nephew and in a former relationship with a Puerto Rican girlfriend.

Relatives of Jacques and a few jurors cried when the verdict was announced at about 4:30 p.m. Jacques, who had been free on bond during the three-week trial, was ordered to report to federal marshals at noon Friday because Judge Michael Ponsor revoked his bail after the verdict.

Jacques insisted on his innocence while leaving the courthouse.

"They got it all wrong. I am not a racist," Jacques said.

His attorney, Lori Levinson, said she was disappointed with the verdict and plans to appeal to the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston.

The lead prosecutor in the case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Smyth, said the government was pleased that all three men who started the fire now stand convicted. Benjamin Haskell was sentenced to nine years in prison in November after pleading guilty. Thomas Gleason pleaded guilty last year and awaits sentencing after testifying in Jacques' trial for the prosecution.

Smyth said that when the church was burning down that night, law enforcement officials hoped it was not an arson related to the election. "In the few days that followed, our worst fears were confirmed," he said.

Asked about Jacques saying the jury got it wrong and an appeal being planned, Smyth said, "The jury's verdict speaks for itself."

Smyth said it was too early to say how long a prison sentence he will recommend to the judge. But he said federal sentencing guidelines call for about 15 years in prison, based on Jacques' convictions.

Jurors began deliberations on Tuesday and told Ponsor on Wednesday that they were deadlocked on two of the charges. But the judge told them it was too early for a hung jury and asked them to start discussions fresh on Thursday morning. The convictions came after the seven women and five men asked the judge several questions, including requesting that the judge better define reasonable doubt and aiding and abetting.

"Some of the jurors are having a hard time with the definition of reasonable doubt," jurors said in a note to Ponsor at about 1:30 p.m. Thursday.

Ponsor said he could not define the terms beyond what he already told them in his instructions to the jury.

The congregation continues to worship at its longtime home on King Street. After the fire, it decided to rebuild on the same site and the new building is nearing completion.

The church's leader, Bishop Bryant Robinson Jr., could not be reached Thursday. No one answered his home phone and a message was left at the King Street church.

Robinson testified during Jacques' trial that he and others were excited when Obama was elected as the country's first black president. But he got a phone call from his brother at about 3:30 the next morning saying the new church was on fire.

Robinson said he spent the next several hours at the church watching it -- and the congregation's dreams -- burn to the ground.

No congregation members were at the courthouse Thursday, and jurors left without commenting.


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