Massachusetts Man Sentenced to Federal Prison for Burning African-American Church
WASHINGTON – Benjamin Haskell was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Michael A. Ponsor in Springfield, Mass., to nine years in prison and three years of supervised release for his role in the 2008 burning of the Macedonia Church of God in Christ, a predominately African-American Church, on the morning after President Barack Obama was elected as the first African-American President of the United States. In addition, Haskell will pay more than $1.7 million in restitution including $123,570.25 to the Macedonia Church.
On June 16, 2010, Haskell, 24, of Springfield, pleaded guilty to conspiring to injure, oppress, threaten and intimidate the mostly African-American parishioners of the Macedonia Church in the free exercise of the right to hold and use their new church building, which was under construction, and to damaging the parishioners’ new church building through arson and obstructing their free exercise of religion because of their race, color and ethnic characteristics.
At the earlier plea hearing, a prosecutor told the court that had the case proceeded to trial, the government’s evidence would have proven that in the early morning hours of Nov. 5, 2008, within hours of President Barack Obama being elected, Haskell and his co-conspirators agreed to burn down, and did burn down, the Macedonia Church’s newly constructed building where religious services were to be held. The building was 75 percent completed at the time of the fire, which destroyed nearly the entire structure, leaving only the metal superstructure and a small portion of the front corner intact. Investigators determined that the fire was caused by arsonists who poured and ignited gasoline on the interior and exterior of the building.
Haskell confessed to the crime and admitted that prior to the presidential election, he and his co-conspirators used racial slurs against African-Americans and expressed anger at the possible election of Barack Obama as the first African-American President. Haskell admitted that after Obama was declared the winner of the election, he and his co-conspirators walked through the woods behind the Macedonia Church to scout out burning it down. Then, in the early morning hours of Nov. 5, 2008, Haskell and his co-conspirators went back to the church, poured gasoline inside and outside of the church, and ignited the gasoline.
"The freedom to practice the religion that we choose without 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. "As seen here today, the Department will prosecute anyone who violates that right to the fullest extent of the law."
"The burning of the Macedonia Church because of racial hatred and intolerance was a vicious attack on one of our most cherished freedoms - to worship in the religion of our choice safely and without fear of discrimination," said U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts Carmen Ortiz. "The successful investigation, prosecution and punishment of those who committed this hateful act is a clear statement that law enforcement will do all in its power to protect our citizens’ civil rights."
"While the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) is charged with investigating some of the most violent crimes, I consider the arson to be one of the most serious and dangerous offenses. Not only was this case about the burning of a house of worship, it cut to the very heart of our most valued rights, that of religious freedom. I want to acknowledge all of our partners who assisted in bringing the individuals responsible for this fire to justice," said ATF Special Agent in Charge Guy Thomas.
"Today’s sentencing represents just one more step toward closure and healing, not only for the victims of this hate crime, but for the Springfield community as a whole. The FBI, along with its federal, state and local law enforcement partners, remains committed to protecting each and every citizen’s civil rights, and will aggressively investigate any violation of those rights, bringing the perpetrators to justice," said Richard DesLauriers, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI.
The case was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Paul H. Smyth and Kevin O’Regan of the District of Massachusetts and Nicole Lee Ndumele, Trial Attorney in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division.