January 18, 2012 / 11:10 PM / 6 years ago

Man sentenced in anti-Obama arson of black church

SPRINGFIELD, Mass (Reuters) - A white man who admitted to helping burn down a mostly black church to protest against Barack Obama's election as the nation's first black president was sentenced on Wednesday to four-and-a-half years in prison.

The November 2008 arson fire came hours after presidential election results were announced, and destroyed the nearly finished Macedonia Church of God in Christ in Springfield, Massachusetts, about 90 miles west of Boston.

Authorities said three white Springfield friends - Thomas Gleason, Michael Jacques and Benjamin Haskell - were motivated by racial resentment when they doused the building with gasoline and torched it.

No worshipers were inside at the time, but some firefighters were injured battling the blaze.

Judge Michael Ponsor in U.S. District Court sentenced Gleason, 24, to 54 months in federal prison for his role in the hate crime, followed by three years of parole.

Gleason pleaded guilty to felony charges of conspiracy to violate civil rights, religious property damage because of race, and damage to religious property by use of fire, according to the lead prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Smyth.

"This was a horrific crime - unexplainable, in fact - with horrific motives," Smyth told the court.

In court, Gleason apologized for what he called an "incredibly stupid" act and for the "pain and frustration" it caused the church's community and to his own family.

The two other men charged in the arson have already been sentenced for their roles in the crime. Jacques, 27, was ordered jailed for 14 years, while Haskell, 25, received a 9-year term.

Prosecutors said Gleason, who testified against Jacques last year, lived near the church, and the three men spent election night drinking beer and smoking marijuana before deciding to burn it down.

In the days immediately after the blaze, the FBI briefed the president-elect and the U.S. attorney general about the arson. U.S. authorities said the hate crime was the only one of its kind on election night.

Gleason was also ordered to pay nearly $1.7 million in restitution, including about $124,000 to the church. The remainder of the money goes to insurance companies involved in the case. The rebuilt church reopened in September.

Editing By Ellen Wulfhorst and Cynthia Johnston

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