Rev. Pinkney case
Activists seek to overturn racist conviction
Published May 14, 2009 8:22 PM
On June 9 the Michigan Court of Appeals will hear defense arguments in the case
of Rev. Edward Pinkney, leader of the Benton Harbor Black Autonomy Network of
Community Organizers (BANCO). Pinkney was convicted by an all-white Berrien
County jury in March 2007 on trumped-up charges related to false allegations of
WW photo: Abayomi Azikiwe
The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan has taken Pinkney’s case,
and was successful in winning his release on bond in December 2008 pending the
outcome of the appeal. Pinkney was convicted of four felony counts and one
misdemeanor after winning a successful recall campaign against a City
As a result of the recall, the courts in Berrien County overturned the election
results citing irregularities. The first trial against Pinkney ended in a hung
jury in 2006. The charges were reinstated, leading to Pinkney’s
conviction and subsequent house arrest. He was initially sentenced to one year
in jail and four years probation by Berrien County Judge Alfred Butzbaugh.
Pinkney was placed on a tether and not allowed to step outside his home. His
phone calls were monitored, and he was prohibited from engaging in community or
church activities in Berrien County.
After Pinkney published an article in the Chicago-based People’s Tribune
newspaper criticizing Butzbaugh’s actions in his case and citing
scripture from Deuteronomy 28:14-22, the pastor was hauled into another Berrien
County courtroom in December 2007. He was charged with threatening the life of
the trial judge and sentenced to 3 to 10 years in state prison.
Over the next year Pinkney was transferred to more than six correctional
facilities throughout the state. A nationwide campaign in his defense drew
worldwide attention to the pastor’s plight as a political prisoner. Even
though Pinkney was released on appeal on Dec. 24, 2008, his conditions of
probation are draconian.
Pinkney’s bond hearing was held in the same Berrien County court system
that imposed the railroad. Under his appeal bond he is denied the right to
preach, grant interviews, write articles, address crowds or engage in
Support builds for appeals hearing
In March three friend-of-the-court briefs were filed in support of overturning
the conviction of Rev. Pinkney. A broad-based group of religious organizations,
law professors and free speech advocates submitted the legal documents.
“We are thrilled with the overwhelming support from the religious
community, constitutional scholars and free speech organizations,” said
Michael J. Steinberg, the ACLU of Michigan legal director. “The groups
persuasively argue for the fundamental American principle that a preacher
cannot be thrown in prison for his religious speech even if some find it
offensive.” (aclumich.org, March 18)
The religious freedom brief encompasses the views of numerous faith-based
organizations including the National Association of Evangelicals, the American
Jewish Congress, the Christian Legal Society, the Baptist Joint Committee for
Religious Liberty, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church and the
National Baptist Convention, among others.
Another brief was submitted by 18 law professors from various universities
including Wayne State University Law School, University of Detroit Law School
and the Thomas M. Cooley Law School. The brief states that “In this
country, under this Constitution, and on this Court’s watch, [Rev.
Pinkney] must not be imprisoned for speaking his conscience.”
Also, the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression argued
in its brief: “In finding that Rev. Pinkney’s newspaper editorial
violated his conditions of probation, the lower court punished speech at the
core of First Amendment protection: public criticism of the
In the upcoming appeals hearing in Grand Rapids, Rev. Pinkney will be
represented by attorneys Michael J. Steinberg of the ACLU as well as James J.
Walsh and Rebecca O’Reilly of the corporate law firm Bodman LLP.
Berrien County & U.S. apartheid
Berrien County in southwest Michigan is a stark representative of racism and
national oppression. Benton Harbor, which is over 90 percent African American,
is one of the most underdeveloped cities in the state. In neighboring St.
Joseph, a nearly all-white city, the standard of living is much higher and it
is the seat of the county where the court is located.
Over the last several years a so-called development project, Harbor Shores, has
unveiled plans to take control of large sections of Benton Harbor to construct
a golf course and residential enclave for the wealthy. These plans, along with
an astronomical foreclosure and unemployment rates, are forcing many residents
of Benton Harbor to leave the area.
According to an article published by Dorothy Pinkney, spouse of the persecuted
minister, presiding trial judge Butzbaugh has interests in the Harbor Shores
development project. The Whirlpool Corporation, which is highly influential in
the region, is the major promoter of the Harbor Shores scheme.
“My husband was denied due process and the right under state law to an
impartial decision maker because the trial judge, Alfred Butzbaugh, had a
financial interest in the development of Harbor Shores. This huge development
project is what motivated my husband to seek the recall of the corrupt Benton
Harbor city commissioner Glen Yarbrough,” Dorothy Pinkney wrote. (BANCO
website, April 2009)
She continues: “The trial court financial interest in the Harbor Shores
project was not known to my husband until after the trial. The Harbor Shores
project which has been primarily pressed by Cornerstone Alliance on behalf of
Whirlpool Corporation began in 1998 when the community economic development
corporation was formed by John Dewane of the law firm Butzbaugh and
The Michigan Emergency Committee Against War and Injustice, the Michigan
Welfare Rights Organization and the Michigan Coalition for Human Rights are
mobilizing people to attend the appeals hearing for Rev. Pinkney on June 9. The
hearing will take place in Grand Rapids at the Court of Appeals Building at 350
Ottawa Street beginning at 9 a.m. For information on transportation, please
call MECAWI at 313-680-5508.
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