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Black Church Arson Seemingly Sparked by Obama Election Brings Civil Rights Guilty Plea

CBS/WSHM/Springfield Fire Dept.

Macedonia Church of God in Christ in flames on Nov. 5, 2008 (CBS/WSHM/Springfield Fire Dept.)
SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (CBS/AP) One of three white men charged with burning down a predominantly black church hours after Barack Obama was elected president pleaded guilty to civil rights charges Wednesday, in a plea deal that calls for him to spend nine years in prison.

Benjamin Haskell, 23, pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy to violate civil rights and damaging religious property because of race, color or ethnic characteristics.

The fire destroyed the Macedonia Church of God in Christ in Springfield in the early morning hours of Nov. 5, 2008, the day after Obama was elected America's first black president.

The church was under construction at the time, but almost complete. It had about 300 members, 90 percent of whom were black, according to federal authorities.

The other two men charged in the case, Thomas Gleason Jr., 22, and Michael Jacques, 25, have pleaded not guilty to the same charges Haskell faced, and to using fire to commit a felony.

Investigators said they were led to all three suspects by an informant. The men told the informant they had set the fire, according to an FBI affidavit. When the informant asked Haskell why, he said "because it was a black church," according to the affidavit.

The fire left little more than a metal frame and resulted in minor injuries to three firefighters.

"Today's conviction should send a strong message that hate crimes will be vigorously investigated and prosecuted in Massachusetts," U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz said in a statement after the hearing.

Formal sentencing for Haskell is scheduled for Sept. 29.

  • Barry Leibowitz

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