Federal prosecutors portray Michael Jacques as a racist who was so upset when Barack Obama was elected president that he and two other white men burned down a predominantly black church in western Massachusetts.
Jacques insists through his lawyer that he's innocent and was coerced into signing a confession after more than six hours of interrogation as he suffered through painkiller and nicotine withdrawal.
A U.S. District Court jury in Springfield will hear both sides of the story today during opening arguments in Jacques' trial. Judge Michael Ponsor has set aside six weeks for the proceedings.
Prosecutors say Jacques and the other defendants burned down Macedonia Church of God in Christ early on Nov. 5, 2008, just hours after Obama was elected the nation's first black president.
The church, still under construction, was to serve a congregation of 300, 90 percent of whom are black. But the head pastor says the faithful are rebuilding.
"It's been a test of our faith," Bishop Bryant Robinson said. "If not for our faith, we might have folded our tents and slipped away into the night. But we refused to let that site become a monument to hatred, violence and racism."
Prosecutors say the defendants poured gas inside and outside the church and set it ablaze. The building was destroyed; some firefighters were injured but recovered.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin O'Regan, one of several prosecutors in the case, declined to comment about the upcoming trial.
"He didn't do it," said Lori Levinson, Jacques' attorney. "He wasn't there."
Jacques, 26, of Springfield, is charged with conspiracy against civil rights, damage to religious property, use of fire to commit a felony and aiding and abetting. The charges carry up to 60 years in prison.
Benjamin Haskell, 24, of Springfield, pleaded guilty to civil rights charges and was sentenced in November to nine years in prison.
Thomas Gleason, 23, who lived on the same street as the church, pleaded guilty last year to charges similar to the ones against Jacques. He awaits sentencing and is expected to testify against Jacques.
A grand jury indictment alleges that the co-conspirators "used racial slurs and expressed anger about the election of Barack Obama as the next president of the United States" and that they discussed burning the church because its members were African-American.
Levinson wrote in court documents that Jacques maintained his innocence through most of the six-plus hours of interrogation, only to end up breaking down and signing a confession because he thought he could leave afterward and satisfy his cravings for Percocet and cigarettes.
"He would have signed anything in order to possibly obtain the opportunity to leave the premises," Levinson wrote.
Levinson tried to have the confession excluded from the trial, but the judge rejected the request.
Robinson said the new church was about 75 percent completed when it was burned. Afterward, the church got insurance money and a $1.8 million construction loan to start construction all over again, he said.
About 90 percent of the building has been finished, and Robinson said he hopes it will open this summer.