BY: BILL HUTCHINSON, ABC NEWS
(NEW ORLEANS) — A white man who pleaded guilty to torching three historically Black Louisania churches in a 10-day span was sentenced on Monday to 25 years in federal prison.
Holden James Matthews, 22, learned of his fate in federal court in Lafayette, Louisana, at the conclusion of a two-day hearing in which parishioners displaced by the 2019 arson rampage gave emotional victim impact statements, with one person saying to Matthews “some believe you should receive the death penalty.”
Prior to Judge Robert Summerhays issuing the sentence, Matthews apologized for his crimes and said he wanted congregants of the churches he destroyed to know he had found faith in the Lord.
Matthews, according to prosecutors, could have been sentenced to 70 years in prison.
He pleaded guilty in February to three counts of using fire to commit a felony and three counts of intentional damage to religious property, which are hate crimes under the Church Arson Prevention Act of 1996.
Federal prosecutors said Matthews admitted to setting the fires because of the “religious character of these buildings” and in an effort to raise his profile as a “Black Metal” musician, a music genre with roots in the Norwegian heavy metal scene that reportedly was the inspiration of several church burnings in that country in the early 1990s.
Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division said Matthews also admitted to taking and posting photographs and videos on Facebook showing the first two church burnings in hopes of promoting himself in the Black Metal community.
Matthews’ reign of terror began on March 26, 2019, setting fire to St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre, Louisiana, officials said.
On April 2, 2019, he set fire to the Greater Union Baptist Church in Opelousas, Louisiana, and two days later he torched the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, also in Opelousas, officials said. All three churches are in St. Landry Parrish.
He was arrested in April after investigators traced three gas cans found at one of the burned churches to a local Walmart and discovered through credit card receipts and surveillance video that they were purchased by Matthews, officials said.
Matthews’ father is a sheriff’s deputy in St. Landry Parish. In April, St. Landry Parish Sheriff Bobby Guidroz said Matthews’ father “helped facilitate” his son’s arrest and had “no knowledge” of the arson spree.
Rev. Kyle Sylvester, a pastor at St. Mary Baptist Church, was among those who gave victim impact statements on Friday.
“Some believe you should receive the death penalty, some want to kill you themselves and others believe your punishment today will not be enough,” Sylvester told Matthews, according to ABC Lafayette affiliate KATC-TV.
Defense attorneys called a clinical psychologist who evaluated Matthews’ mental state to testify on Friday. Mary Lou Kelley, a professor at Louisiana State University, said Matthews, in her opinion, suffers from untreated depression, social anxiety, arrested social development and socially avoidant behavior that stems from a fear of social rejection.
Kelley claimed that Matthews has a history of alcohol and substance abuse and that he got drunk before setting each fire.
“His mother continuously told him to pray and it’ll get better. … He was angry at God because his prayers weren’t heard. I think if he had gotten the mental health services he needed he would not be here today,” Kelley said.
As part of the sentencing, Summerhays gave Matthews 18 months credit for time served since his arrest and ordered Matthews to seek substance abuse counseling while in prison.
The fires drew national attention, and Vice President Mike Pence traveled to St. Landry Parrish to condemn the acts.
“No one should ever fear for their safety in a house of worship, anywhere in this country, anywhere in the world. Attacks on communities of faith must stop,” Pence said at the time, citing a mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on Oct. 18, 2018, that left 11 people dead and seven wounded and another shooting at a synagogue in Poway, California, in which one congregant was killed and three were injured, including the rabbi.
Following the arson fires, churches and religious groups throughout Louisiana and the nation donated more than $2 million to a GoFundMe site established by the Seventh District Baptist Association, a 150-year-old nonprofit religious organization, to help rebuild the three burned churches.
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