A Massachusetts man convicted of burning down a black church out of anger over the election of President Barack Obama was sentenced to nearly 14 years in federal prison on Thursday.
According to prosecutors, in the early-morning hours after Obama's election on Nov. 4, 2008, 27-year-old Michael Jacques and several accomplices used gasoline to torch the Macedonia Church of God in Christ's nearly-completed $2.5 million worship center in Springfield, Mass. No parishioners or church staff were in the building at the time.
The timing of the fire triggered immediate concern from state and federal authorities that it was a racist response to the election of the country's first African American president. After an investigation lasting several months, police ultimately secured confessions from the participants indicating that the fire was racially motivated.
"The hate crime which Michael Jacques committed against the Macedonia Church of God in Christ stung not only the Springfield, Mass. region, but indeed the nation. Having been raised in Western Massachusetts, it stung me as well," Richard DesLauriers, Special Agent in Charge of the Boston FBI, said in a statement.
The church was rebuilt with help from volunteers and supporters from around the country and opened for services this summer.
After being implicated in the arson by Benjamin Haskell, one of his accomplices, Jacques was brought in for questioning by the Massachusetts State Police and admitted his involvement in the crime after a six-hour interrogation. Before his trial in April, Jacques told a federal judge he was pressured into a false confession while suffering withdrawal from painkillers and nicotine. The judge ruled that the confession was admissible.
Haskell told police that Jacques "was angry that the country was going to have an African American president and that the blacks and Puerto Ricans would now have more rights than whites," according to court documents.
After a three-week trial, Jacques was convicted of numerous federal civil rights charges, including destruction of religious property and conspiracy against civil rights. In addition to serving almost 14 years in federal prison, followed by four years of supervised released, he must pay nearly $1.6 million in restitution.
"This sentence sends a powerful message that racial violence and intimidation have no place in our society," Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez said in a statement.
Haskell and another accomplice, Thomas Gleason, pleaded guilty to civil rights charges in June 2010. Haskell was sentenced to nine years in prison in November 2010. Gleason, who testified against Jacques, will be sentenced in January 2012.