SUMMERVILLE — The former pastor of the Bethel AME Church was sentenced to two years of probation Thursday in the 2005 arson fire that destroyed the Main Street church. The case against his wife and co-defendant was dropped.
Former pastor Harold E. Hunter and his wife, Patricia, declined to comment after the sentencing in an Orangeburg courtroom, but prosecutors say the plea closes an arson case against the pair that, with no eyewitnesses to the fire, would be difficult to prove in court.
Hunter, 59, entered an Alford plea to a reduced charge of malicious injury to real property. In an Alford plea, the accused does not acknowledge guilt but concedes there is enough evidence that a trial jury might bring back a conviction.
Hunter's defense lawyer said his client wanted to take advantage of the plea "in large part, to free his family from these charges," said attorney Mark Leiendecker.
Under the sentence imposed by Circuit Judge James Williams Jr., Hunter was given five years in state prison, but the time was suspended to two years of probation.
First Circuit Assistant Solicitor Harrison Bell said the plea was a necessary solution to the case because the first attempt to try Harold Hunter in 2006 for arson ended in a hung jury.
Also, two witnesses to Hunter's conduct before the fire were either dead or ill, and the church congregation became reluctant to pursue the case.
In May 2005, both of the Hunters were charged with second-degree arson four days after the church went up in flames. Prosecutors have speculated Hunter wanted to build a new church and also was looking to avoid being transferred to another AME church in rural Dorchester County.
Hunter's defense said the church was never secure, meaning anyone could have gained entry and set the fire. The church has been rebuilt.