Plea change expected in Louisiana black church burnings

Plea change expected in Louisiana black church burnings
FILE - This file booking image provided by the Louisiana Office of State Fire Marshal shows Holden Matthews, who was arrested Wednesday, April 10, 2019, in connection with suspicious fires at three historic black churches in southern Louisiana. Matthews is scheduled for a change-of-plea hearing Monday, Feb. 10, 2020, in federal court, where he faces hate crime charges. (Louisiana Office of State Fire Marshal via AP, File)

LAFAYETTE, La. (AP) — The suspect in a series of fires set at African American churches in Louisiana last spring is scheduled for a change-of-plea hearing Monday in federal court, where he faces hate crime charges.

Holden Matthews had earlier pleaded not guilty to the charges arising from arson fires that destroyed three churches in an around the city of Opelousas. But, court records revealed that there had been plea negotiations going on in the case.

Matthews is white and the destruction of the three historic black churches evoked memories of civil rights-era terrorism. But race is not mentioned as a factor in the charges. Matthews was charged with three counts of “intentional damage to religious property,” which the Department of Justice said is a hate crime under the U.S. Church Arson Prevention Act. He’s also charged with three counts of “using fire to commit a felony.”

The indictment said the fires were set “because of the religious character” of the properties.

Three churches were burned in a span of 10 days, beginning in late March 2019, in an area roughly 140 miles (225 kilometers) west of New Orleans in St. Landry Parish. Matthews’ father is a parish sheriff’s deputy.

Investigators said Matthews had shown interest in “black metal,” an extreme sub-genre of heavy metal music. The music has been linked, in some instances, to fires at Christian churches in Norway in the 1990s.

Matthews also faces state charges in connection with the fires. Don Richard, an assistant district attorney in St. Landry, told The Associated Press he hopes to begin resolving the state case after the federal plea but declined to discuss details.

The state charges include two counts of simple arson of a religious building and a count of aggravated arson of a religious building.