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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 voter fraud.

Rev. Pinkney
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 Commissioner.

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 politics.

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 judiciary.”

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 Ryan.”

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.