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3 charged in Alabama church fires face prison

BIRMINGHAM (AP) — Three former college students who pleaded guilty in a string of church fires that terrorized rural Alabama last year are due in federal court Monday to face sentencing for the blazes, set as a joke during a night of drinking.

Prosecutors say each man faces a minimum sentence of seven years in federal prison, and state authorities are seeking additional time in Alabama prisons.

Matthew Cloyd, Benjamin Nathan Moseley and Russell Lee DeBusk — all 20 — pleaded guilty in December to federal arson and conspiracy charges stemming from a string of nine fires set on two nights in February 2006. Five churches were torched in Bibb County south of Birmingham on one night; four others were burned in three western counties four days later.

All three men admitted being involved in the first five fires, which one described as a joke that got out of hand during a night of drinking and illegal hunting. Cloyd and Moseley set the subsequent blazes in an attempt to throw investigators off their trail, according to their plea documents. The defendants will have a chance to speak, and their attorneys already have inundated U.S. District Judge David Proctor with letters from friends and relatives seeking lenience. Members or pastors of the burned-out congregations also are expected to testify.

“It’s emotionally charged, and I suspect it will give a number of the victims a chance to speak to the court,” said Tommy Spina, a lawyer for Cloyd.

Bob Little, who pastors a West Alabama church that was gutted by flames, said he was glad he doesn’t have to pass judgment on the three. While his 50-member Galilee Baptist Church in Panola still meets in a trailer because of the arson, he said good has come from the crime.

“We’ve seen a lot of unity, a tremendous outpouring of help in the last year,” said Little. “The Cloyd family came and worshipped with us back in February. It was an awesome experience.”

All the burned churches were small and rural, but the suspects were from middle- to upper-class families in metro Birmingham. Cloyd formerly attended Birmingham-Southern College, the small, liberal-arts school where DeBusk and Moseley were enrolled.

In letters of support to the judge, relatives and friends described the defendants as bright young men who were led astray by alcohol and their peers.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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