St. Louis Police Arrest Black Man For Church Fires: Is It A Hate Crime?

St. Louis police have arrested a 35-year-old black man suspected of committing two of seven church fires in a predominantly African-American area of the city. Authorities have likely concluded that it is not a hate crime, but this could be viewed as a rush to judgment.

David Lopez Jackson was charged Friday with two counts of second-degree arson in fires at New Life Missionary Baptist Church and Ebenezer Lutheran Church—both in the city proper of St. Louis. Jackson is being held on $75,000 cash bond. Three of the other five fires were in St. Louis and the other two in nearby Jennings. They were set between October 8 and October 22.

Before a suspect was arrested, questions were raised over whether the fires were racially motivated, and this prompted a hate-crime investigation to determine if the fires were set based on race or religion. But the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives tends to believe otherwise, and per a News Channel 3 report.

“There appears to be no indication of a hate crime or sign… any one particular Christian denomination or ethnic group was being targeted.”

St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson has not given any other explanation for the arson and said investigators “are still trying to understand” the suspect’s motivation. He has been given a mental health evaluation, but to date, results have not been reported. It seems that since Michael Brown, an unarmed black, man was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, the issue of race is being treaded upon lightly, because authorities fear another volatile situation. However, race was mentioned in the story about Jackson, because it is significant.

Hate crime legislation in Missouri, like in many other states, is used to enhance the penalty for crimes that are motivated because of race, gender and sexual orientation. It is also used against those who vandalize buildings used for worship. However, most news articles focus on hate crimes that target a person’s race or sexual orientation. Although the St. Louis fires did not target a specific denomination, they did target churches.

Per Newsweek, the majority of the churches had predominately black congregations. One church is racially mixed, and the other is mostly white; although Jackson has only been charged with two of the seven arson incidents, evidence points toward possible involvement with all the crimes.

Surveillance video placed Jackson’s car near New Life church, and a gasoline canister, along with another container that smelled like gasoline, were found in his car, noted the Washington Post. Authorities said the fires did not spread beyond the front door of most of the churches. One exception is New Life church; the pastor and police said flames entered through cracks and spread throughout the house of worship. No one was hurt in any of the incidents.

Recently, Dylan Roof, who opened fire on a group of black worshipers at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, pleaded not guilty to hate crime charges. Most would agree that his words about starting a race war that were spoken just before he murdered nine innocent people would place his actions in the hate crime category. What some may not realize is that hate crime charges are not reserved only for criminals of any particular ethnic background or solely for those who murder.

The St. Louis arson suspect could possibly be charged with a hate crime, because churches were targeted. Whoever committed the crimes, black, white, or other did not set fires to random buildings through the city, but instead chose to set buildings of worship ablaze. Although no one was hurt the situation could have ended differently.

If the St. Louis arson suspect is found guilty, will he be charged with a hate crime? It appears possible, but unlikely, based on common interpretation of hate crime laws.

[Image: St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department]