A Mississippi man who burned down his own church just before the 2016 election has been sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Andrew McClinton, 47, pleaded guilty to arson in late March, The Daily Wire previously reported. On Thursday, Circuit Judge Margaret Carey-McCray sentenced McClinton to 10 years in prison as well as a 10-year suspended sentence to follow, part of which would be served under state supervision. Washington County District Attorney Dewayne Richardson told the Associated Press that McClinton’s sentence was based in part on his status as a habitual offender due to previous felony convictions. In 1997, McClinton was convicted of attempted armed robbery. In 2004, he was convicted of armed robbery.
McClinton had set fire to Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church in Greenville, Mississippi just a week before the 2016 election. Hopewell had a predominantly African-American congregation. The words “Vote Trump” were painted on the side of the building when it burned, leading those looking to paint then-candidate Donald Trump as someone who inspires racists to claim it was a hate crime.
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) included the arson on its list of hate crimes allegedly inspired by Trump before and after the election. The arson was included before any investigation had been conducted and was used to slam Trump.
The SPLC had to edit their reports on the church burning once it became clear the church was not burned because of Trump-inspired racism. In an editor’s note added to the original post, the SPLC wrote: “In December 2016, a suspect, a member of the church, was arrested in connection with the crime, and authorities now believe the attack was not politically motivated.” The center kept its original headline on the article, however.
Mike Chaney, Mississippi’s state fire marshal and insurance commissioner, previously told the AP that McClinton appears to have set the church on fire in order to distract from other crimes. Chaney did not elaborate on what the other crimes were.
“He tried to make the arson appear it was politically motivated, but it was not,” Chaney said at the time.
DA Richardson gave the AP a little more information on Thursday, saying McClinton set fire to the church the night before the congregation was supposed to meet and discuss the “illicit” activities in which he had been involved. Richardson also said McClinton kept changing his story when he admitted to setting the fire.
McClinton admitted to setting fire to the church but has thus far refused to say he wrote “Vote Trump” prior to his crime. Perhaps he really didn’t write the message in an attempt to pass the blame onto someone else.
After their church burned down, the Hopewell community worshipped at nearby First Baptist Church of Greenville, whose congregation is predominantly white. A new church has been built in place of Hopewell. Some of the original church’s walls were saved and incorporated into the new structure.