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White man convicted over black church fire to protest Obama win

By Zach Howard

SPRINGFIELD, Massachusetts (Reuters) - A white man was convicted on Thursday of setting fire to a mostly black church in November 2008 to protest Barack Obama's election as the nation's first black president.

The arson fire on November 5, 2008, just hours after election results were announced, destroyed the almost-completed Macedonia Church of God in Christ in Springfield, Massachusetts, about 90 miles west of Boston. Several firefighters were slightly injured battling the flames.

Prosecutors argued that Michael Jacques, 26, and two white friends were motivated by racial resentment when they doused the building with gasoline and torched it.

The church's congregation was about 90 percent African American and authorities said the white men wanted to denounce Obama's victory.

After a three-week trial, the jury in U.S. District Court in Springfield deliberated for nearly three days before finding Jacques, of Springfield, guilty of conspiracy to violate civil rights, religious property damage because of race and damage to religious property by use of fire.

Jacques faces up to 60 years in prison when he is sentenced on September 15, said assistant attorney Paul Smyth, the lead prosecutor in the case.

Two other men charged in the hate crime, Benjamin Haskell and Thomas Gleason, both 24, already have pleaded guilty to similar charges. Haskell was sentenced in November to nine years in federal prison, and Gleason, who testified for the prosecution in the trial, will be sentenced in October.

Prosecutors said Gleason lived near the church and the three men spent election night drinking beer and smoking marijuana together before they agreed to go burn it down early the next morning, at about 2:00 a.m.

Jacques tried unsuccessfully to have his confession thrown out before trial. He argued that state police and the FBI had falsely obtained it during a more than six-hour interview while he was suffering from withdrawal from nicotine and the pain-killer Percocet.

The church is being rebuilt and is now expected to open later this year, its pastor, Bishop Bryant Robinson, said last month.

(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Jerry Norton)

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