US: Man guilty of church fire surrenders

Michael Jacques is convicted of burning down a Massachusetts church in 2008.

Last Updated: Apr 16, 2011, 12:35 PM IST

Springfield: A 26-year-old man convicted of burning down a predominantly black Massachusetts church shortly after President Barack Obama`s election insisted on his innocence on Friday before surrendering to US marshals to be detained until sentencing.

A federal court jury found Michael Jacques guilty on Thursday in connection with the burning of the Macedonia Church of God in Christ in Springfield, a crime that prosecutors called an angry act of racism.

After the verdicts, a judge revoked Jacques` bond and ordered him to surrender by noon Friday at US District Court in Springfield. He plans to appeal the convictions.

"I am sorry that that did happen," Jacques told reporters in front of the courthouse on Friday, referring to the fire. "I obviously didn`t do it. My heart does go out to those people. But I am innocent, and I will appeal, and justice will prevail."

Jacques said he spent Thursday night and Friday morning with his ailing father, who suffered a stroke and is hospitalised in critical condition.

Jacques is set to be sentenced on September 15 and faces 10 to 60 years in prison. Federal sentencing guidelines call for a prison term of about 15 years for convictions for conspiracy against civil rights, destruction of religious property and use of fire to commit a felony.

Two of Jacques` friends, Benjamin Haskell and Thomas Gleason, pleaded guilty in connection with the fire. All three men are white and live near the fire site.

Haskell is serving a nine-year prison sentence, and Gleason awaits sentencing.

The church was under construction at the time of the fire, and no one was inside. The congregation, which remains at its longtime King Street home, is nearly finished rebuilding a new church at the same site.

Prosecutors said during closing arguments that Jacques` racism reached the "boiling point" when Obama was elected in 2008. They said he often used racial epithets, expressed anger that minorities were "taking over" the country and once set a dog on a black person.

Jacques again on Friday denied being a racist.

"I`m definitely misunderstood," he said. "I`m just a normal person. I`m not a bad person."

Bureau Report