By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 4, 2010; A06
Federal authorities are stepping up enforcement against hate crimes, filing charges in a racially motivated cross-burning and announcing the sentencing this week of a Massachusetts man for burning a predominantly African American church the morning after President Obama's election.
Benjamin Haskell, 24, was sentenced Monday to nine years in prison for his role in torching the Macedonia Church of God in Christ in Springfield, Mass. The Nov. 5, 2008, arson nearly destroyed the building, and Haskell admitted in court documents that the crime was motivated by anger over Obama's election.
In Arkansas, three men were indicted on charges of burning a cross in the yard of a black resident of a rural area, the Justice Department announced Tuesday.
Although the cases are not connected, they reflect heightened federal enforcement against hate crimes and other civil rights violations, a top priority of the Obama administration, officials said Wednesday.
"It's extremely important," said Cynthia M. Deitle, unit chief for the FBI's civil rights program. "We are here to help people who have been the victim of an atrocious crime, whether it's police brutality or a church arson. If we don't do it, there's no one else who will."
The FBI was given an additional $8 million by Congress last year for civil rights enforcement, and Deitle said much of that money went to investigating hate crimes. "We've increased our presence and resources in that area," she said.
The Justice Department is holding training sessions for agents and prosecutors across the country to enforce the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. The 2009 law, for the first time, extends federal protection to victims of hate violence on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.
It is named for Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student who was murdered in 1998, and Byrd, a black man who was dragged to death behind a pickup truck in Texas in 1998.
FBI data show that the number of hate crimes has remained relatively stable for the past decade. In 2008, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 7,783 hate-crime incidents were reported nationwide.
Michael Lieberman, Washington counsel for the Anti-Defamation League, which monitors hate crimes, said the group has seen increased bias incidents against Hispanics. In one recent case, a federal jury last month convicted two Shenandoah, Pa., men of a hate crime in the fatal beating of a Hispanic man in a park.
In the Massachusetts case, Haskell and two other men were charged in January 2009 in the burning of a church building that was under construction and 75 percent complete. Haskell pleaded guilty in June, admitting that he and co-conspirators poured gasoline inside and outside the building and ignited the fuel.
Five firefighters were injured in the blaze, which left intact only the building's metal superstructure and a small portion of the front corner. A second man has pleaded guilty, and a third is awaiting trial. An attorney for Haskell did not return phone calls.
"The freedom to practice the religion that we choose without discrimination or hateful acts is among our nation's most cherished rights," said Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's civil rights division. "The department will prosecute anyone who violates that right to the fullest extent of the law."