WASHINGTON – The Justice Department today announced that Benjamin Haskell, 23, of Springfield, Mass., pleaded guilty to a superseding information charging him with two crimes related to the burning of the Macedonia Church of God in Christ, a predominantly African-American church, in Springfield on the morning after President Barack Obama was elected as the first African-American President of the United States.
The superseding information charged that in the early morning hours of Nov. 5, 2008, within hours of President Obama being elected, Haskell and his co-conspirators agreed to burn, and succeeded in burning, the Macedonia Church of God in Christ’s newly constructed building where religious services were to be held for its predominantly African-American congregation. The building was 75% completed at the time of the fire which destroyed the entire structure leaving only the metal superstructure and a small portion of the front corner intact. Investigators determined the fire to be incendiary in nature and caused by an unknown quantity of gasoline applied to the exterior and interior of the building.
Haskell damaged religious property and obstructed the free exercise of religion because of the race, color or ethnic characteristics of any individual associated with that religious property. Haskell conspired to injure, oppress, threaten and intimidate the parishioners of the Macedonia Church of God in Christ in the free exercise or enjoyment of the right to hold and use real property, a right which is secured in the Constitution and laws of the United States.
"The freedom to practice the religion that we choose in a safe environment without being subjected to discrimination or hateful acts is among our nation’s most cherished rights," said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. "Anyone who violates that right will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."
U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz of the District of Massachusetts said, "Today's conviction should send a strong message that hate crimes will be vigorously investigated and prosecuted in Massachusetts. When I announced my civil rights initiative earlier this month, I made it clear that the U.S. Attorney’s Office will be reinvigorating it's efforts in this area, and making it one our top priorities."
U.S. District Judge Michael A. Ponsor of Springfield scheduled sentencing for Sept. 29, 2010. By the terms of the plea agreement, Haskell faces mandatory sentence of 108 months in prison to be followed by three years of supervised release and a $7,500 fine.
The case was investigated by Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; FBI; Massachusetts State Police; Hampden County District Attorney’s Office and the Springfield Police Department. It is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Paul H. Smyth and Kevin O’Regan of Ortiz’s Springfield Office and Nicole Lee Ndumele, Trial Attorney in the Civil Rights Division.