Pinkney earlier convicted by all-white jury of five felony counts of “forgery under the Michigan election law”
Judge Schrock cites election honesty, while over 51 percent of Michigan’s Black residents have no real election rights
By Diane Bukowski
December 16, 2014
Benton Harbor/St. Joseph, Michigan – As the world rises up against the acquittal of killer cops Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo in the racist slayings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, Rev. Edward Pinkney, 66, a long-time fighter for Benton Harbor’s majority-Black and poor population, was sentenced to 2.5 to 10 years in prison Dec. 15 on five counts of “forgery under the Michigan election law.”
“I have committed no crime, and unfortunately, if I had been anyone else, I wouldn’t be here,” Pinkney, his head held high, told Berrien County Judge Sterling Schrock.
After an all-white jury convicted him Oct. 3, Rev. Pinkney said, “I could not believe they could find me guilty without one piece of evidence. . . I thought the jurists would have enough heart, enough courage and righteousness to do the right thing. They didn’t just fail me. They failed everybody that lives in the city of Benton Harbor. Now everybody in Benton Harbor is in jeopardy. They are saying they don’t need evidence to send someone to prison.”
Benton Harbor City Commissioner Marcus Muhammad said, “Officer Darren Wilson was allowed to go free. And we saw the suffocation and the choking of Eric Garner and his murderers were allowed to go free. So for Reverend Pinkney to be convicted and sentenced to prison on this day only reflects that the justice system is in shambles!”
Berrien County Prosecutor Michael Sepic charged Pinkney with changing five dates on petitions to recall Benton Harbor Mayor James Hightower. The petitions cited Hightower’s backing by the Whirlpool Corporation, which has closed all its local plants and taken over large swaths of the city’s public land.
A Michigan State Police forensics lab technician testified that there was no way to tell who had changed any dates. He said he found discrepancies on 10 of 40 petitions, but the only five used in the trial were those circulated by Rev. Pinkney. Witnesses testified all the petitions had gone through many hands.
But Berrien County Circuit Court Judge Sterling Schrock told Pinkney, “This gives you a total of 12 felony convictions, nine of which are attempts to unlawfully interfere with the election process. That’s troubling.”
Ironically, Benton Harbor was the first city targeted in 2011 by Michigan’s Public Act 4, the Emergency Manager law which later became PA 436 in 2012. The law has now deprived over half of Michigan’s Black residents of their true election rights, and stripped their cities, including Detroit, the nation’s largest Black-majority city, of their major assets. Their residents face growing poverty, unemployment, foreclosures, police brutality, and incarceration.
Pinkney led a mass campaign against Benton Harbor’s EM takeover, and for many years has challenged the high rate of police killings and incarceration of Benton Harbor residents.
As Rev. Pinkney was placed in handcuffs, his supporters from around the country who had packed the courtroom rallied outside, chanting angrily, “Free Rev. Pinkney now!”
Marcina Cole, a leader of the Detroit delegation, cited what she said was the chief reason for Pinkney’s conviction by an all-white jury and his sentence in the majority-white, well-to-do St. Joseph. That city is just across the river from Benton Harbor, 98% Black, with an official poverty rate of 43 percent, the highest in the state.
“How can you convict a man without evidence?” Cole asked. “All I know is that racism was the deciding factor. . .We will continue to march for justice! May justice prevail in the courts. It’s going to take a lot of us, and people need to stop looking from the windows of their homes and come out and fight in the streets.”
Berrien County itself is 15.2 percent Black, so Rev. Pinkney’s jury venire should have included at least that many Black residents. But Berrien County Prosecutor Michigan Sepic got the only two Blacks on the large venire removed.
Pinkney also said in a motion that at least one juror, Gayle Freehling, lied when she said she did not know Berrien County Clerk and trial witness Sharon Tyler, although she had worked with her on various political events and also served as a city clerk under her in Berrien County. Tyler turned over the petitions in question to Berrien County Sheriff Paul Bailey without a warrant.
The chain of evidence from that point was severed. No originals, only copies of the petitions were used to bind Rev. Pinkney over for trial. No one seemed to know where the originals were.
Despite what some called the “lynch mob mentality” in St. Joseph itself, many whites came out to support Pinkney, including Pati Heinz of southwest Michigan.
“All white juries should never happen in a Black man’s trial,” Heinz said. “We are to be judged by our peers, not by some hand-picked racist idiots that this judicial system decides to put our lives in their hands. This whole case, there was not a shred of solid evidence! He was convicted on circumstantial evidence which was very flimsy! I sat through the whole trial, I saw it first hand; this injustice has got to stop!”
Pinkney turned himself in after a SWAT team stormed his home last May. Berrien County sheriff’s deputies then raided homes of petition signers throughout the city, trying unsuccessfully to get them to testify that they had not signed the petitions on the dates indicated. At least 30 petition signers at Pinkney’s trial verified their signatures and dates.
Prosecutor Sepic’s use of five felony charges against Pinkney contrasted with the treatment accorded Michael Brandon Hall, who ADMITTED that he forged the actual signatures of 10 voters, unlike Pinkney, who denied any wrongdoing. An Oct. 23 appeals court decision upheld rulings by lower courts that Hall was appropriately charged under election law, with misdeameanors, not felonies.
In contrast to the charges Sepic brought against Pinkney, he recently charged his friend, Berrien County Commissioner Robert Wooley, with only one count of embezzling almost a million dollars from funds for the Senior Center over a period of seven years. (See video above.)
“A warrant was authorized by prosecutor Mike Sepic for the arrest of Wooley who
was allowed to turn himself in — without a Swat Team surrounding his house,” Pinkney commented. “He was released on $25,000 bond; a hearing was scheduled for Monday, December 15.”
Rev. Pinkney’s attorney Tat Parish earlier told VOD that any sentence in his case would be appealed. Neither Parish nor Pinkney’s appeals attorney Tim Holloway were available for comment at press time.
To sign petition in support of Rev. Pinkney, click on http://www.bhbanco.org/2014/09/b-n-c-o-petition-we-demand-justice-in.html?spref=tw
To donate to the campaign to free Rev. Pinkney, send funds to Rev. Edward Pinkney 1940 Union St. Benton Harbor, MI 49022 Phone: 269-925-0001