SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — A federal prosecutor told a jury Monday that a man and two friends were racists so upset when Barack Obama was elected president in 2008 that they burned down a predominantly African-American church just hours after the voting ended.
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Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Smyth gave his opening argument on the first day of the trial of Michael Jacques, 26, in U.S. District Court.
“We are here today because of racism,” Smyth told the 16 jurors, including four alternates. “We are here today because of the depth of their intolerance.”
Jacques and two co-defendants, Benjamin Haskell and Thomas Gleason, were charged with using gasoline to set the Macedonia Church of God in Christ in Springfield on fire in the early morning hours of Nov. 5, 2008. The building was under construction at the time. A few firefighters were injured, but recovered.
Authorities say all three men, who are white, confessed to setting the fire. Haskell, 24, of Springfield, pleaded guilty to civil rights charges and was sentenced in November to nine years in prison. Gleason, 23, who lives on the same street as the church, pleaded guilty last year, awaits sentencing and will be testifying against Jacques.
Smyth told jurors that all three men confessed during videotaped interviews and there is also incriminating audio recordings.
Jacques lawyer, Lori Levinson, told the jury that there is no physical evidence against her client and that authorities coerced him into confessing during a grueling seven-hour interrogation during which he suffered withdrawal from addictions to Percocet and cigarettes.
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“You will learn that getting his next dose of his drug of addiction is what became the most important thing in the world … and he would say anything,” Levinson said.
Levinson and Smyth showed the jury parts of the videotaped confession, during which Jacques foot is shaking and he’s twiddling his thumbs as a state police investigator interviews him.
Levinson described Haskell as a bragger who made up stories to make himself look tough. She also said Haskell also was pressured by authorities into confessing.
Levinson noted that Gleason pleaded guilty and will testify against Jacques. She asked the jury to consider what kind of deal Gleason made with prosecutors in exchange for his testimony.
Smyth said Jacques and his friends frequently used racial epithets to describe blacks. The prosecutor said Jacques and Haskell trained a dog to “get” black people, and Jacques was upset that his sister was having a baby with her African-American boyfriend and didn’t want a black child in his house.
Levinson told jurors that they will hear bad things about Jacques, but that doesn’t mean he set the fire.
“You’re going to hear a lot of things about him that you’re not going to like,” she said. “You’ve got to keep in mind that Michael Jacques is charged with the crime of arson, basically. He’s not charged with being an all-around bad person.”
Levinson also said, “The film footage of that fire … was really horrifying and you wouldn’t be human if you weren’t outraged by it and very, very angry at whoever did that to that church. But it wasn’t Michael Jacques.”
Jacques could face up to 60 years in prison if convicted of conspiracy against civil rights, damage to religious property and other charges.
The church launched a rebuilding effort after the fire and the new building is about 90 percent complete, the church’s head pastor, Bishop Bryant Robinson Jr., testified Monday.
Robinson testified about how he and others across the country were excited about Obama being elected as the country’s first black president. But then he got a phone call from his brother at about 3:30 the next morning saying the church was on fire.
Robinson said he spent the next several hours at the church watching it burn to the ground.
“I’m trying to fathom what happened, what went wrong,” he said.
He said he and his congregation decided quickly that they were going to rebuild.