Holden Matthews.—AP
Holden Matthews.—AP

LAFAYETTE: A man who admitted to burning down three predominantly African American churches to promote himself as a black metal musician was sentenced to 25 years in prison and ordered to pay the churches $2.6 million.

US District Judge Robert Summerhays of Lafayette sentenced Holden Matthews, giving the 23-year-old man credit for 18 months he already spent in jail, US Attorney Alexander Van Hook said in a news release.

Matthews admitted to setting the fires because of the religious character of these buildings, in an effort to raise his profile as a Black Metal musician by copying similar crimes committed in Norway in the 1990s, the statement said.

Matthews had shown interest in black metal, an extreme subgenre of heavy metal, according to authorities. The music has been linked, in some instances, to fires at Christian churches in Norway.

Matthews told the judge, pastors and congregations of the three Baptist churches that he was deeply sorry and wanted them to know he had recovered his faith in God, The Advocate reported.

He had pleaded guilty to both state and federal charges. Summerhays said that when Matthews is sentenced in state court, that judge may order the sentence to be served at the same time as the federal one.

Matthews pleaded guilty in federal court to three counts of violating the Church Arson Prevention Act and to one of using fire to commit a federal felony.

Summerhays ordered him to pay $1.1 million in restitution to Mt. Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church and $970,213.30 to Greater Union Baptist Church, both in Opelousas, and $590,246 to St. Mary Missionary Baptist Church in Port Barre.

All three were burned down over 10 days in March and April of 2019. The churches were empty at the time of the fires, and no one was injured.

Although race was not considered a motive, Summerhays said, he had to consider that the crime brought the church communities back to a dark time of racial discrimination, the newspaper reported.

These churches trace their origins to the post-Civil War Reconstruction period and, for generations, were a place for predominantly African American Christians to gather, pray, worship, and celebrate their faith, Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the Civil Rights Division, said in the news release. The churches survived for nearly 150 years but did not survive this defendants warped act of hatred.” The judge asked the Bureau of Prisons to put Matthews in a prison near his family and to ensure that he gets substance abuse counseling and mental health treatment, KATC-TV reported.

The hearing had begun on Friday but was cut short after new evidence was introduced. On Friday, clinical psychologist and Louisiana State University professor Mary Lou Kelley a defense witness testified that Matthews struggles with anxiety, depression and arrested social development.

Matthews pleaded guilty in state court to three state hate crime counts, two of simple arson of a religious building and one of aggravated arson of a religious building. That sentencing had been scheduled on Monday but was postponed with no date set, The Advocate reported.

Published in Dawn, November 4th, 2020

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