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3 Convicted in Racial Church Fires

November 4, 1997

MOBILE, Ala. (AP) _ A jury convicted three white youths of conspiring to burn a rural black church, but acquited them in the first trial involving a new federal racial hatred law.

Alan Odom, Brandy Boone and John Kenneth Cumbie were convicted Monday on a conspiracy count in the June 30 torching that destroyed St. Joe Baptist Church, a 21-member church in the Little River community.

Prosecutors said they filed the racial hatred counts because Miss Boone attended a Ku Klux Klan rally two days earlier. The other two were not at the rally, but went to a party attended by rally-goers on the night of the fire.

The new federal charge imposes harsher penalties _ a mandatory 10-year sentence _ for arson in a religious structure when race is the motive. It was passed after a rash of fires at black churches in the South in 1995 and 1996.

Odom, 18, who was accused of setting curtains afire to start the blaze, also was convicted of one count of arson and one count of arson with racial motivation, which is different from the racial hatred count. He could get up to 18 years in prison.

Miss Boone, 19, was accused by prosecutors of shouting ``Let’s go burn the nigger church″ to inspire the arson while Cumbie, 21, allegedly did nothing to stop it. They were found innocent of arson and could receive between four and five years in prison for conspiracy.

A fourth defendant pleaded guilty to arson before the trial began.

Although none was convicted on the new hate crime charge, Assistant U.S. Attorney Greg Bordenkircher said he was convinced the Klan rally inspired the arson.

Klan members in the rural area had been ``planting seeds that grew into a bitter harvest,″ he said.

Defense attorneys contended Odom thought the building was abandoned and that the three, who drove to the site after a beer-drinking party, got into youthful mischief _ nothing to the degree claimed by prosecutors.

James Harper, an attorney for Odom, said the verdict will be appealed.

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