In Church Arsons, Justice Still Waits

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When Alabama churches started going up in flame in February 2006, nightmare visions of marauding Ku Klux Klansmen and Satanists, — the first attacking black churches, the second, white churches — sped through the popular imagination. Both groups have been active in Alabama history; and so the devout stood vigil through the night to guard their places of worship from white-robed or otherwise malevolently attired assailants. However, on Monday afternoon, when the perpetrators of the fires appeared in court for sentencing, they were dressed in orange jumpsuits and they claimed to have no racist or devilish designs on the good churchfolk of the state. Matthew Lee Cloyd, 21, Benjamin Moseley, 20 and Russell DeBusk, 20, all white, were drunk and out to use their car headlights to stun and then shoot deer. When that turned into an inebriated fiasco, said DeBusk, "We agreed to break into a church and one of our number decided to light a jar of plastic flowers." Things got out of hand after that.

Nine churches in all would be torched in rural Alabama: five near Birmingham and four near the Mississippi line. The first five were burned on one night and four nights later Cloyd and Moseley set fire to four more churches to divert law enforcement. Two firefighters were injured battling the blazes. The young men were found after a massive manhunt tracked a mysterious SUV that left tracks from Cloyd’s specially purchased off-road tires. U.S. District Judge David Proctor sentenced Cloyd and Moseley to eight years and 11 months; DeBusk got seven years. The trio have been ordered to pay the $3.1 million cost to rebuild all nine churches. Proctor ordered participation in a federal substance abuse rehabilitation program to be part of their sentence. In addition, he ordered them to perform 300 hours of community service during the five years of probation after prison.

The legal proceedings had divided Alabama, with law enforcement demanding justice and clergymen from the victimized churches pleading for mercy and forgiveness. One preacher, the Rev. Walter Hawkins, spoke in court with, he said, a "spirit of forgiveness. We love them and want them to come and visit us as soon as they finish their sentences." But Bibb County District Attorney Michael Jackson believed that full weight of justice still has to be imposed. The federal government may have exacted its due but Alabama had to get its hands on the trio to serve time under state law. That could mean an additional 15 years each. "I am not bending on that," said Jackson. "We can pray for them while they are in prison."

[Update: Cloyd, Moseley and DeBusk had applied for youthful offender status at the state court hearing on April 12. The three were sentenced to 15 years for each arson, 10 years for each burglary and six months for animal cruelty for shooting a cow. They will serve a mandatory two years after their federal sentences are over and no other time "as long as they behave themselves," said Alabama state prosecutor Michael Jackson. Said Jackson: "I feel like justice was served. They‘ll be in there long enough to know it was a serious crime."]

The public had been stunned when the suspects' identities were revealed. "When you actually see who did it," said the Rev. Jim Parker, whose church was destroyed, "it's like pulling the curtain back on the Wizard of Oz." Moseley, a student at Birmingham-Southern College, had formerly participated in missions where churches were built. He had been Student Government President and Vice President of the Honor Society in high school. Cloyd was studying to be a physician’s assistant at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. DeBusk was a theater major on scholarship at Birmingham-Southern College. Said Connie Lawley, treasurer of Old Union Baptist Church, "You want to see justice served but at the same time, it's a shame they've ruined their lives."

In the end, said Pastor James Posey of the burned Morningstar Missionary Baptist Church in Boligee, it was most likely the usual suspect who is ultimately to blame. "Drinking," he said, "is fertile ground for the devil to work in." Citing an old expression in the black community, he added, "Don't give the devil a ride or he'll want to drive."