A Plea Bargain in the Alabama Church Burnings?

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The three college students arrested in March for the burnings of nine rural churches in Alabama will most likely never go to trial, sources in the case tell TIME. Judge John E. Ott announced Monday that their trial date has been moved from June to November — a delay, according to the sources, that is the result of infighting over a plea agreement among federal prosecutors, the Alabama state attorney and three county prosecutors. The issue: where the trio will serve their jail time.

Matthew Cloyd, 20, and Russell DeBusk Jr. and Benjamin Moseley, both 19, were charged with breaking both state and federal laws, and have been in federal lockup since their March 8 arrest. In such cases, says U.S. attorney Alice Martin, local prosecutors typically agree to a federal sentence in federal prison, if only to save the locals money. But in this racially charged case (five of the churches burned were predominantly black), bringing justice home is an issue. "They will do time in Alabama. I am not bending on that," says Bibb County DA Michael Jackson. Meanwhile, Alabama Attorney General Troy King, who is up for re-election this year, says he will not agree to a sentence and jail time that's federal only. "These were Alabama churches, Alabama congregations and there will be Alabama consequences."

The sticking point is whether to allow the federal and state sentences to run concurrently, with the trio serving all their time in federal lockup. Attorneys for the three men are seeking a federal minimum of seven years, with any state sentence to run concurrently. Alabama prosecutors may still demand at least seven years jail time for each crime. "In this case, everyone wants their pound of flesh," says DeBusk's attorney Brett Bloomston.

Not everyone. "I forgive them and feel sorry for them," says Dancy First Baptist Church pastor Walter Hawkins of the defendants, echoing the distaste the pastors feel for the bargaining over their sentences. "There is mercy in justice," says Jim Parker, pastor at Ashby Baptist Church. "When you actually see who did it, warehousing criminals is not the answer. If you want to teach a lesson, let them spend the rest of their lives paying back every nickel."

If a plea bargain is reached, however, a lot of Alabamans may feel cheated. After their arrest, Cloyd, DeBusk and Moseley said they had set the first of five fires as a spontaneous joke, then followed it with four more fires intended as cover. Without a trial, all the details of their crimes — and how much planning went into them — may never be known.