Benton Harbor, Mich., Civil Rights activist convicted by all-white jury
The Rev. Edward Pinkney was found guilty of five felony counts of forgery stemming from a recall campaign against Mayor James Hightower of Benton Harbor, Mich., earlier this year.
The all-white jury in St. Joseph, Mich., deliberated for nine hours and delivered the verdict on Nov. 3. The sentencing date has been set for Dec. 15.
Hightower was the subject of the recall campaign due to his refusal to support a local income tax measure designed to create employment for the people in Benton Harbor, located in Berrien County in the southwest region of the state. Hightower is often accused by residents of Benton Harbor of being more concerned about the well-being of Whirlpool Corp. and other business interests than the people he is sworn to protect and serve.
During the five-day trial, not one witness said they saw Pinkney change any dates or signatures on the recall petitions. During the opening arguments on Oct. 27, Berrien County Prosecutor Mike Sepic told the jury that they would not hear anyone say that they had witnessed the defendant engaging in fraud.
The prosecutor’s case was supposed to be based on circumstantial evidence. Nonetheless, the tenor of the questioning by the prosecutor seemed to suggest that the Black Autonomy Network Community Organization (BANCO), the group Pinkney leads in Berrien County, was actually on trial for its uncompromising opposition to the role of Whirlpool Corp. and its supporters within the political establishment in Benton Harbor and its environs.
Prosecution witnesses backed recall
In the testimony of eight witnesses called by the prosecution on the first day of the trial, all had supported the recall of Mayor Hightower. The witnesses said that they never saw Pinkney change any petitions.
Prosecution witness Bridgett Gilmore told the court that she circulated the recall petitions for George E. Moon and had no contact with Pinkney during the process. While the prosecutor asked her about what appeared to be minor changes on the petitions she circulated, defense lawyer Tat Parrish pointed out that none of these pages in question were the ones which Pinkney was charged with altering.
Gilmore noted that two types of ink were used on some of the signatures because the circulation process took place during the winter and a pen would freeze requiring the usage of another one. When Gilmore turned over the petitions to Moon, Pinkney was not present.
“There were many people calling for Hightower’s recall,” she said.
Another witness called by the prosecution, Majorie Carter, indicated that she received the recall petitions from the City Clerk’s office. Carter supported the recall because she believed that businesses should pay taxes to create jobs in Benton Harbor, a majority African-American city which suffers from extremely high unemployment.
Carter said that she was a registered voter and had campaigned for candidates before. She noted that she had run for city commissioner in the past.
“I collected signatures for the recall from my apartment complex for seniors,” she said. “One signer corrected a date on the petition.”
Mable Louise Avant testified after being called to the stand by the prosecution. She said she had met Pinkney at a BANCO meeting.
“I had been living in New York and when I returned and saw how Benton Harbor had gone down, something needed to be done,” Avant said.
“People make mistakes,” she emphasized. “Rev. Pinkney had nothing to do with the mistakes. I turned over the petitions to Rev. Pinkney.”
The petitions that Avant circulated were not the ones that Pinkney was accused of altering.
Benton Harbor resident George E. Moon also took the stand for the prosecution, and indicated he had circulated petitions for the recall of Hightower. When asked by the prosecutor where he got the idea about recalling the mayor, Moon responded by saying: “My ideology is different than the mayor. People should be elected and not bought.”
“I am an activist,” Moon declared. He said he had spoken out in favor of the recall in the community.
Overall, more than 700 people signed the recall petitions, most of which were validated by the local election commission. A date was set for the recall election.
Nonetheless, after Pinkney was indicted and placed under house arrest for several weeks, the recall election was cancelled by a local judge who raised questions about the signatures. Yet later, another judge certified the petitions and authorized the recall election to proceed.
The local authorities in Berrien County challenged the election, which was scheduled for Nov. 4. The Michigan Court of Appeals then cancelled the recall election again.
Hightower remains in office and was called as a prosecution witness during the first day of the trial.
James Cornelius, a Benton Harbor resident who sponsored the recall campaign against Hightower, took the stand, saying that he got the petitions from Pinkney to circulate. “Hightower was not doing a good job,” Cornelius told the court.
Many of the prosecution’s questions related to the meetings, ideology, membership and leadership of BANCO. During the course of the prosecution’s questioning of witnesses, numerous observers were ejected from the courtroom for various reasons.
One activist who traveled from Detroit was told he had to leave because he was “smirking.” Another observer from Detroit was asked to leave because she shook her head in disbelief of the proceedings, which she felt presented no evidence to incriminate Pinkney.
Rev. Pinkney to seek delay in sentencing
After the announcement of the verdict, Pinkney indicated that he was disappointed with the decisions of the all-white jury. This is the second time within seven years that he has been convicted by a Berrien County jury.
In 2007, Pinkney was found guilty of tampering with absentee ballots involving another recall campaign against two Benton Harbor city commissioners. He was sentenced to one year of house arrest and four years of probation.
However, in December of 2007, while under house arrest, Pinkney was charged with threatening the life of a Berrien County judge after he published an article in the People’s Tribune newspaper quoting biblical scriptures. He was sentenced to 3-10 years for violating his probation.
A national campaign involving the Michigan American Civil Liberties Union along with numerous community, academic and religious organizations resulted in a successful appeal that released Pinkney from a state prison after serving one year. He has continued to be a major critic of the authorities in Berrien County.
In 2010, BANCO opposed the transferal of land from Jean Klock Park to a privately owned venture known as Harbor Shores Development. The park, which had been designated for free public usage in 1917, was turned into the Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course on Lake Michigan.
Two years later, in 2012, BANCO organized the “Occupy the PGA” to oppose the holding of the senior tournaments in Benton Harbor that year. Hundreds attended the march and rally, drawing the ire of the local business interests and county officials.
On the most recent convictions for felony forgery, Pinkney said: “I was in shock more than anything else because I could not believe they could find me guilty with no evidence at all. They have proven the fact you don’t need evidence to send someone to prison.”
Pinkney added: “Sometimes somebody has to take a bullet and I just took one. It was in the leg though, it wasn’t in the heart. I’ve got about 45 good days and then we are definitely going to request a delay in sentencing.”
Prosecutor Mike Sepic said after the convictions that “each of those felony counts carries a 5-year maximum, but he has at least three prior felony convictions. That makes him a habitual offender, which turns those five-year maximums into a life maximum and actually elevates the guidelines that will be scored for him as well. I believe it will be either a lengthy jail sentence or prison sentence.”
Supporters of Rev. Pinkney are outraged by the jury verdict. Many of them are committed to working for an appeal of the convictions.
Legacy of racism and national oppression
Berrien County is notorious for its racism against African Americans. Police brutality, large-scale home foreclosures, high unemployment and the systematic forcing of people from the majority African-American city of Benton Harbor have been standard policies for years.
In 2003, after the police chased an African-American motorcyclist, resulting in a crash and his death, the African-American community in Benton Harbor rose up in rebellion that lasted for several days.
Although the then governor, Jennifer Granholm, pledged to provide assistance for the improvement of conditions in Benton Harbor, no action was taken other than the privatization of Jean Klock Park and the appointment of an emergency manager in 2010.
Although Benton Harbor is ostensibly out from under emergency management, the city is subjected to the more powerful and predominantly white St. Joseph, where the county court system is based. The fact that an all-white jury was impaneled in such a racially sensitive case in an area with deep historical tensions, speaks volumes with regard to the lack of sensitivity existing among the county authorities and the corporate interests.