A federal prosecutor told a jury Monday that a man and two friends were racists so upset when Barack Obama was elected president in 2008 that they burned down a predominantly African-American church just hours after the voting ended.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Smyth gave his opening argument on the first day of the trial of Michael Jacques, 26, in U.S. District Court.
"We are here today because of racism," Smyth told the 16 jurors, including four alternates. "We are here today because of the depth of their intolerance."
Jacques and two co-defendants, Benjamin Haskell and Thomas Gleason, were charged with using gasoline to set the Macedonia Church of God in Christ in Springfield on fire in the early morning hours of Nov. 5, 2008. The building was under construction at the time. A few firefighters were injured, but recovered.
Authorities say all three men, who are white, confessed to setting the fire. Haskell, 24, of Springfield, pleaded guilty to civil rights charges and was sentenced in November to nine years in prison. Gleason, 23, who lives on the same street as the church, pleaded guilty last year, awaits sentencing and will be testifying against Jacques.
Smyth told jurors that all three men confessed during videotaped interviews and there is also incriminating audio recordings.
Smyth said Jacques and his friends frequently used racial epithets to describe blacks. The prosecutor said Jacques and Haskell trained a dog to "get" black people, and Jacques was upset that his sister was having a baby with her African-American boyfriend and didn't want a black child in his house.
Levinson told jurors that they will hear bad things about Jacques, but that doesn't mean he set the fire.
"You're going to hear a lot of things about him that you're not going to like," she said. "You've got to keep in mind that Michael Jacques is charged with the crime of arson, basically. He's not charged with being an all-around bad person."