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Trial of white man accused of black church fire begins

By Zach Howard

SPRINGFIELD, Massachusetts (Reuters) - A pastor testified on Monday in the federal trial of a white man accused of torching his mostly black church to protest Barack Obama's election as the nation's first black president.

The arson fire on November 5, 2009, just hours after election results were announced, destroyed the nearly-completed Macedonia Church of God in Christ in Springfield, about 90 miles west of Boston. Several firefighters were injured battling the flames.

Michael Jacques, 26, of Springfield and two others were charged in the hate crime.

All three white men were videotaped confessing that they doused the building with gasoline and ignited it because the congregation was about 90 percent African American and they wanted to denounce Obama's victory, authorities said.

In the days immediately after the fire, the FBI briefed the President-elect and the U.S. Attorney General about the hate crime.

Jacques faces up to 60 years in prison if convicted of charges that include conspiracy against civil rights, religious property damage because of race and damage to religious property by use of fire.

The first witness in his jury trial was pastor Bryant Robinson, who appeared before Judge Michael Ponsor in U.S. District Court in Springfield.

Robinson said he learned of the massive fire when his brother phoned him at home just a few hours after Obama's historic Election Day win. Robinson then drove to the church where he could see "flames leaping to the sky, the building being totally consumed," he said.

Jacques has denied being involved in the fire or even being present at the church that night, said his attorney, Lori Levinson.

He tried unsuccessfully to have his confession thrown out before the 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 Percocet and nicotine withdrawal.

The two other men charged in the case, Benjamin Haskell, 24, and Thomas Gleason, 23, have already pleaded guilty to similar charges. Haskell was sentenced in November to nine years in federal prison and Gleason is awaiting sentencing and is expected to testify against Jacques.

The church is being rebuilt and is now expected to open later in 2011, the pastor said.

(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Greg McCune)

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