Trial Opens in Mass. Black Church Arson Case


SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (RNS) After two accomplices pleaded guilty, the sole man to stand trial for torching a black church the night of President Obama’s election was confronted with secretly taped recordings during opening arguments on Monday (March 21).

“Gas, straight-up gas. Hit the corners and the whole thing went straight up,” Michael F. Jacques said on a videotape on why the Macedonia Church of God in Christ burned so fast on Nov. 5, 2008.

Jacques, 26, of Springfield is the only one standing trial after two white co-defendants, Benjamin F. Haskell and Thomas A. Gleason, pleaded guilty. If convicted, Jacques, who also is white, faces a minimum 10 years in federal prison.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul H. Smyth told the jury that Jacques bragged about his prowess as an arsonist to an undercover state trooper. During a 6 1/2-hour interrogation, Jacques admitted that the three men had torched the church.

“All of us burnt it down,” Jacques told state trooper Michael S. Mazza. “Poured the gasoline and lit in on fire.”

Smyth said prosecutors will present evidence that Jacques routinely disparaged black people, training a Rottweiler to attack when hearing a racist slur.

Jacques’ defense team plans to argue that he was coerced into a false confession that was influenced by withdrawal symptoms from the narcotic painkiller Percocet.

Defense lawyer Lori H. Levinson cautioned jurors about jumping to conclusions in a case that has no physical evidence against her client. The challenge will be separating facts and evidence from some “really terrible things” they will hear about her client’s behavior and attitudes, she said.

(Jack Flynn writes for The Republican in Springfield, Mass.)

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