Church fire confession challenged

| October 8, 2010

SPRINGFIELD – While Carol Jacques' husband, a diabetic, was recuperating in the hospital after one of multiple amputations, she went home to retrieve a bottle of 180 Percocet pills prescribed for him nine days earlier.

The man hadn't taken one. But, there were just seven left.

"I confronted Michael Jr. … I asked him if he took the pills and he told me he did," said Jacques, mother of Michael Jacques, 26, one of three white defendants charged with torching the Macedonia Church of God in Christ, a predominantly black house of worship that was under construction, on the night of the presidential election in 2008.

Over six days of suppression hearings in U.S. District Court, Jacques' lawyer has fought to bar a seven-hour videotaped interview from evidence. Defense attorney Lori H. Levinson has argued, among other things, that Jacques was in the throes of opiate withdrawal and falsely admitted to helping set the fire because he was hungry for another fix after investigators kept him virtually captive for nearly eight hours.

Jacques, Thomas A. Gleason Jr., 22, and Benjamin F. Haskell, 24, were charged with a hate crime after the partially constructed church went up in a massive blaze on Nov. 5, 2008, just hours after President Barack H. Obama was elected.

During interviews with investigators, all the men admitted to varying degrees of contempt for minorities, with witnesses reporting Haskell trained his dog to growl when he heard a racial epithet. Haskell and Gleason have both pleaded guilty in the case and are awaiting sentencing.

For his part, Jacques maintains investigators overstepped their constitutional bounds when they refused to let him leave an interrogation room even after he denied involvement in the fire for several hours. He will likely go to trial in February.

Confessions are inadmissible in court if obtained illegally, U.S. District Judge Michael A. Ponsor has noted during the proceedings.

A parade of witnesses for the government testified in pretrial hearings that Jacques showed none of the telltale signs of withdrawal during his exchanges with state and federal investigators on Jan. 16, 2009. The prosecution's final witness, Deputy U.S. Marshal David Milne told Ponsor that Jacques seemed lucid and composed as he booked him, asked him standard questions and led him to a cell block.

However, Jacques has reported abusing Percocet – a highly addictive pain reliever – every day for four years prior to his arrest. His mother testified that her son had become distant and withdrawn starting about two years before she confronted him about the 173 missing pills – the same month the fire broke out.

"There was no emotion out of him. He didn't express any remorse over taking that many pills, even though his father extremely needed them," Carol Jacques said from the witness stand on Thursday.

She testified that her son was being paid by a local rehabilitation center to care for his father while he was swiping the painkillers, and remained in that role up until his arrest in January of 2009.

"Even after the pill incident, you let him take care of his father?" Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin O'Regan asked Carol Jacques during cross-examination.

"Yes. That was his father's wish," she said.

Levinson previously told Ponsor she was considering presenting Michael Jacques as the final witness for the defense. However, the judge said on Thursday that he may give prosecutors free rein to cross-examine Jacques about his involvement in the fire and anything after.

Testimony in the suppression hearings is expected to conclude on Friday.

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Category: Church Security

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