Students Face Long Sentences in Church Arson Case

Three Alabama college students face dozens of years in prison if convicted on charges of burning five churches in the state. Their friends say they've thrown their lives away and don't understand why. The young men who face trial say it was a prank.

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Three Birmingham college students have been charged with felonies in the string of Alabama church burnings. They face federal counts of conspiracy and arson for setting fire to nine Baptist churches with both black and white congregations. The young men face dozens of years in prison, but as NPR's Kathy Lohr reports, many in Alabama are still wondering what was behind the fires.

KATHY LOHR: Ashby Baptist Church in central Alabama burned to the ground in the early morning hours on February 3. It was one of five churches set on fire that day. Pastor Jim Parker says the fog was so thick, he could barely see to drive the 30 miles from his home to where the church stood.

JIM PARKER: The conditions of the weather and the speed by which the churches were let off suggests to me that it had been well planned.

LOHR: Everybody around here has heard that one defendant said in the criminal complaint that the church fires were a joke that got out of hand, but Parker says that doesn't fit with what happened that night.

PARKER: The distance and all, the logistics of pulling it off, it looked more like a well-orchestrated military strike than it did three drunk boys, wandering around in the dark, stumbling upon churches and lighting them off.

LOHR: At Birmingham Southern, a private Methodist college, many on campus are hesitant to talk about what happened. Two of the three arrested, Benjamin Moseley and Russell Debusk, went to school here. Inside the student union, April Jackson and Ryan Early sit on a comfy couch.

RYAN EARLY: I mean, they made a pretty rough decision and I guess they're having to deal with it. They messed up and they're having to deal with it.

APRIL JACKSON: The whole campus is trying to move on, I mean, I knew the guys, so the atmosphere on campus is just people try and go about their lives.

LOHR: Jackson, who's black, was a good friend of Moseley, who is white, from her piano and music class. She says she can't imagine there was a racial motive for the attacks, as some have speculated.

JACKSON: Looking at the situation and the chronological events, I don't really see a race issue. I just see it as just the wrong decisions. A series of wrong decisions and trying to correct it and doing it is just another series of wrong things, terrible things.

LOHR: Moseley and Debusk were 19-year-old theater buddies. The third defendant is 20-year-old Matthew Cloyd. They were all friends inside the internet world of Facebook, where they sent troubling cryptic messages. One message spoke of launching a season of evil. Another talked about drinking beer, shooting a powerful rifle and killing 33 white-tailed deer.

DAVID POLLICK: There's a piece missing in the explanation of this.

LOHR: Birmingham Southern president, Dr. David Pollick.

POLLICK: What does it mean to be able to retreat into a private world, a cyber world that young people live in day in and day out, where they can play games that don't have the real effects that the things we do in the real world do. It's like escaping into a film.

PARKER: Sarah, how are you? How you doing? Hi, Miss Lucy. How are you tonight?

LOHR: Pastor Jim Parker greets members of Ashby Baptist Church at their midweek Bible study in trailers that have been set up at their old church site. In an unusual move, Parker, a victim of the burnings, has offered to visit the defendants in jail.

PARKER: I'm not going to interrogate them. It'll be a spiritual visit and I'm going to talk to them about how they can find redemption and then how they can go forward and rebuild their lives and give them some hope.

LOHR: Parker plans to visit the defendants in the next few days with the blessing of his congregation. They forgive the young men, but at the same time, they want to make sure justice is done so that there's a clear message that burning churches is a serious crime.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News.

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