Judge rules against arson defendant

| May 29, 2010

SPRINGFIELD – After five days of testimony it took a federal judge about five seconds to deny a motion to suppress a videotaped confession by a defendant in a church burning.

"The ruling here is not close," U.S. District Court Michael A. Ponsor told lawyers involved in the prosecution of the Nov. 5, 2008, arson of the Macedonia Church of God in Christ.

Prosecutors say three city men – Thomas A. Gleason Jr., 22, Michael F. Jacques, 25, and Benjamin F. Haskell, 23 – torched the predominantly black church to protest Barack Obama's election. Gleason and Jacques have been charged with a hate crime plus a federal felony using arson. They face up to 40 years in federal prison.

Haskell faces a lesser civil rights violation and appears to be positioning himself for a plea deal, because he has been excused from lengthy suppression hearings during the past two weeks.

Lawyers for Gleason and Jacques began arguing in tandem to block their clients' confessions from evidence at the outset of the hearings. However, Jacques' argument included more complex constitutional and medical issues, and Ponsor temporarily suspended testimony related to Jacques on Thursday, in favor of wrapping up the suppression issue for Gleason. Ponsor ruled against Gleason Friday.

The partially constructed church off Tinkham Road replaced a much smaller one on King Street. The new building was scheduled to be opened that spring to accommodate a swelling congregation.

The three told an undercover state trooper and other witnesses that they set off a massive blaze with a homemade foam and kerosene cocktail they dubbed "napalm." During testimony this week, Gleason said during an interrogation on Jan. 16. 2008 that he boastfully told his friends he wrote "hate nigger" on the driveway of the church in napalm and set it afire. But he said it was just youthful bluster and untrue.

The case drew a national response team given its proximity to the election, and set off an intense local investigation.

Jacques and Gleason were ultimately picked up on Jan. 15 and 16, respectively, and grilled until they offered up confessions. Their lawyers recently argued they were scared into giving false confessions by a pair of law enforcement officials who yelled, name-called and threatened with long prison sentences during several hours of interrogation.



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Category: Church Security