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Springfield man gets 14 years in church arson

Fire set to protest Obama election

Michael Jacques left federal court on April 14.

AP

Michael Jacques left federal court on April 14.

One of the three men convicted of torching a predominantly black church in Springfield in 2008 after the historic election of President Obama was sentenced in federal court yesterday to nearly 14 years in prison.

Michael Jacques, 27, of Springfield, will also have to serve four years of supervised probation once he is released, and must pay nearly $1.6 million in restitution, including $123,570 to Macedonia Church of God in Christ, the church he and two other men set ablaze. He was sentenced in US District Court in Springfield.

Nancy Palmieri

The Macedonia Church of God in Christ is a predominantly black church in Springfield. It was torched in 2008.

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Bishop Bryant Robinson Jr., the church’s pastor, said in an interview yesterday that he and members of his congregation had faith they would see justice done.

“We were resting on our faith in our God that he would give us . . . a resolution to the situation and that he would see us safely to the other side,’’ he said, adding that the church “chose not to be inciteful or inflammatory in our language and in our behavior.’’

The burning of the church, which was still under construction, made national headlines not only because of the nature of the crime in protest of a the election of the nation’s first black president, but also because of the community’s response in uniting and rebuilding the church.

“That kind of coming together was an immense blessing to the Macedonia community,’’ the bishop said. “We had people from across the country to physically help us. We had people make donations. We had people stand with us in prayer.’’

The congregation had a celebratory service at the rebuilt church in September, he said.

Jacques was convicted in April after a trial on charges of conspiracy against civil rights, destruction of religious property, and use of fire to commit a felony.

He was the only one of those charged who went to trial. The others pleaded guilty to civil rights charges in June 2010. Benjamin Haskell was sentenced to nine years in prison in November 2010, and Thomas Gleason is slated to be sentenced on Jan. 18. Gleason cooperated with authorities and testified against Jacques.

“As evidenced in this case, hate crimes victimize not only individuals but entire communities,’’ US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz said in a statement. “We remain committed to protecting our communities from violence motivated by bigotry and prejudice, and ensuring that justice is served to victims.’’

Prosecutors had asked that Jacques be sentenced to 16 years in prison and cited the Emancipation Proclamation in calling for the tougher punishment for the “hateful and harmful act.’’

“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,’’ said Richard DesLauriers, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Boston division.

The Springfield police and the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were also involved in the investigation.

Jacques and the others had protested the election of Obama because, as Jacques put it, members of the black community “will have more rights than whites,’’ according to evidence introduced in the trial.

In the hours after Obama’s victory on Nov. 4, 2008, the three men torched the church, which was under construction behind Gleason’s home on Tinkham Road, by dousing its corners with gasoline and lighting it on fire.

Investigators were led to the men after they started to hint to friends that they were involved in the fire, and the men ultimately confessed to police.

Jacques had asserted during his trial that he was coerced into confessing after being interrogated with deceitful tactics for close to eight hours. He also asserted through his lawyer that police were led to the men by hearsay, and that officials failed to investigate other suspects.

His lawyer, Lori Levinson, said Jacques confessed so that he could be released and satisfy a Percocet habit.

In court filings, Jacques had asked that he serve 10 years in prison, the lowest punishment allowed under mandatory sentencing laws, citing his history of drugs and a tough upbringing in which he was physically and emotionally abused by his father. Jacques had faced 13 to almost 15 years in prison under sentencing guideline recommendations.

“Arson is an extremely violent crime that destroys lives physically and emotionally,’’ Guy Thomas, special agent in charge of the ATF’s Boston division, said. “An intentionally set fire on a house of worship is an attack on the founding principles of our country. [The] sentencing should send a strong message to those who choose violent crime to express their hate and intolerance.’’

Milton Valencia can be reached at MValencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MiltonValencia.
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