AUSTIN, Texas — A 20-year-old Texas man was sentenced to 10 years in prison Wednesday for setting fire to an Austin synagogue in 2021.
Earlier this year, Franklin Sechriest pleaded guilty to charges of arson and a hate crime causing damage to religious property after the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Central Austin was set on fire on Halloween in 2021. Prosecutors asked for a 10-year sentence, citing what they called Sechriest's “deeply held” antisemitic and racist beliefs.
Prosecutors said he had committed other racially motivated crimes and demonstrated a "capacity to lie and manipulate." A judge said he would recommend that Sechriest be housed at a federal medical facility.
Sechriest, who was 18 at the time of the fire, was a member of the Texas State Guard and a student at Texas State University.
During Wednesday's sentencing hearing in the U.S. District Court in downtown Austin, Sechriest could be seen looking over at his parents and mouthing, "I’m sorry."
Sechriest’s lawyer Daniel Wannamaker said his client had been diagnosed with autism and suffered from mental illness. He described Sechriest as an isolated teenager who was vulnerable to being "groomed" and "radicalized" by online hate groups.
Sechriest spoke briefly at the hearing, denouncing those beliefs and apologizing to "everyone involved."
Members of the congregation on Wednesday gave statements during the sentencing hearing, describing the long-term impact of the arson on the greater Jewish community. Jake Cohen, executive director of Congregation Beth Israel, told the court that the arson "struck at the heart" of the synagogue’s "communal identity."
Journals with antisemitic and racist rhetoric found at man's home
Federal investigators said Sechriest set fire to the outside of the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue on Oct. 31, 2021.
When searching Sechriest’s home, investigators found journals containing antisemitic and racist rhetoric. An entry dated Oct. 31 read: “I set a synagogue on fire.”
Lori Adelman, who was synagogue president at the time of the attack, said they took considerable security measures in light of the arson and a national rise in antisemitic incidents. Members of the congregation said the arson forced the synagogue to balance the safety of its members against being welcoming to outsiders.
Still, the congregation hopes to remain “deeply connected” to the city, Cohen told the American-Statesman, part of the USA TODAY Network, prior to the hearing.
“No act of hate can make us change who we are,” Cohen said.
Kelly Levy, a rabbi at Beth Israel, said many members of the congregation were struck by Sechriest’s age. She expressed hope that he could unlearn his beliefs.
“The hatred that he has expressed is something that he learned along the way,” Levy said. “Our prayer is that he finds that teshuvah, that return back to that way of loving the world.” She said “teshuvah” is a Jewish concept which she described as a “return” to a childlike state of peace.
Last month, Congregation Beth Israel marked two years since the arson and began plans for rebuilding the sanctuary.
This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Franklin Sechriest gets 10 years for setting fire to Texas synagogue