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Arson charges dropped

ALBANY -- All charges against the Rev. Joseph Howard, the pastor accused of hiring two men to burn Trinity Metropolitan Baptist Church, have been dropped by the district attorney's office following an 11th-hour disclosure that brought into question the credibility of the state's key witness, officials say.

Howard was set to go on trial Monday in connection with a conspiracy to burn the church on New Year's Eve 2007.

But at 11 a.m., a representative of the U.S. Attorney's Office hand-delivered a package to prosecutor Christopher Cohilas that contained a taped conversation between co-defendant Vincent Jackson and an unidentified party that was surreptitiously recorded sometime before the trial was set to begin.

"This recording caused irreparable harm to the credibility of our witness," Cohilas said. "So the decision was made to drop the charges."

Cohilas noted that the dropped charge did not speak to the innocence or guilt of the defendant.

"I just want to be clear, by no means is our decision to nol-pros (drop) the charges a statement of innocence in this case," Cohilas said. "My job is not to win but to do what's right, to make the tough decisions and, given this recording, the right decision was to disclose it to the court and end the case."

Howard was accused of paying Jackson and Curtis Jones to set fire to the church, which was set to go on the auction block later that week.

Cohilas said that the state did have other evidence that suggests that Howard provided Jackson with an apartment and was in contact with him immediately before, during and after the fire, but Jackson's testimony was to be the centerpiece of their case.

"Mr. Jackson, to a large degree, was the linchpin of our case," Cohilas said.

In the weeks leading up to the trial, Jackson had expressed concerns over threats of physical violence he said he had been receiving because of the nature of his testimony.