Man charged in ‘Vote Trump’ church fire seeks defender

Emily Wagster Pettus
Associated Press

Jackson, Miss. — A Mississippi man charged in the burning of an African-American church that was spray-painted with the words “Vote Trump” is requesting a public defender to represent him in court.

Officials haven’t revealed what led to the arrest of the man who’s a member of the church and has a prior criminal record. But the state fire marshal says investigators don’t believe the fire and vandalism were politically motivated, despite happening a week before the contentious presidential election.

Andrew McClinton, 45, of Leland, made an initial appearance Thursday in Greenville Municipal Court, a day after being charged with a felony: first-degree arson of a place of worship.

Judge Michael Prewitt set bond at $250,000 for McClinton, who has previously served prison time in Mississippi for armed robbery. Greenville’s assistant police chief, Michael Merchant, said paperwork was submitted for a public defender, and McClinton remained in the Washington County jail.

Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church of Greenville burned and was vandalized Nov. 1.

Mississippi Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney, who is also the state fire marshal, told The Associated Press that investigators do not believe the fire was politically motivated.

“There may have been some efforts to make it appear politically motivated,” Chaney said.

Hopewell Bishop Clarence Green said McClinton, who is African-American, is a member of the church.

Mississippi Department of Corrections records show McClinton was sentenced in 1991 to three years’ probation for a grand larceny conviction in Washington County, where Greenville is the county seat. His probation was revoked in 1992 for receiving stolen property in Greenville, said Department of Corrections spokeswoman Grace Simmons Fisher.

In 1997, McClinton was sentenced to seven years for attempted robbery in Lee County. And, in 2004, he was convicted of armed robbery in Lee County. He served eight years in prison and was released in January 2012. Fisher said the prisons agency ended its supervision over him in February.

Greenville, a Mississippi River port city of about 32,100 people, is about 78 percent African-American. While it’s not unusual for people of different racial backgrounds to work and eat together, local residents say the congregations at most churches remain clearly identifiable by race.

Greenville Mayor Errick D. Simmons called the church burning “a direct assault on the Hopewell congregation’s right to freely worship.”

“There is no place for this heinous and divisive behavior in our city,” Simmons said Wednesday.

Hopewell was founded in 1905 in the heart of an African-American neighborhood, and the congregation now has about 200 members. Some walls of the beige brick church survived the fire but the remains of the structure were recently torn down. Rebuilding could take months.

After the fire, Hopewell congregants began worshipping in a chapel at predominantly white First Baptist Church of Greenville. Bishop Green said last month the generosity of First Baptist demonstrates that “unlimited love” transcends social barriers. James Nichols, senior pastor at First Baptist, said the Hopewell members are welcome to stay as long as they need a home.

Greenville is in Washington County, a traditional Democratic stronghold in a solidly Republican state. In the Nov. 8 presidential election, Republican Donald Trump easily carried Mississippi, but Democrat Hillary Clinton received more than twice the vote of Trump in Washington County — 11,380 for Clinton to 5,244 for Trump.