In April 2014, Reverend Edward Pinkney submitted 728 signatures to the Michigan Berrien County Clerk’s office to recall then Mayor James Hightower. The required number of signatures was 393. Upon review, by the clerk’s office, 300 signatures were disqualified, leaving 428 confirmed and certified. With 428 signatures, the requirement was met in excess by 35 signatures. The recall date was set at May 6, 2014.
Then, the nightmare began.
After the recall date was set, Hightower questioned some dates on the petitions and, ultimately, the petitions were handled by multiple individuals until, finally, they were delivered to the Michigan State Police Crime Lab to determine if any dates had been fraudulently altered. This is where things get fuzzy. The crime lab determined that some dates were changed based on a change in ink color and variations in the type of pen that was used. The prosecution, after charging Pinkney with five counts of election forgery of changing five dates on signatures, contended that the reason for the change was to meet the 60-day rule (signatures on petitions dated more than 60 days before they were filed with the county clerk, would be invalid).
The kangaroo court, in Berrien County, Michigan that followed later that year, convicted Pinkney of the five counts as felonies and he was sentenced to serve 2.5 to 10 years in prison.
Fast forward to July 2016, after Pinkney’s legal team has filed multiple appeals for bond and briefs to counter this wrongful conviction, after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)-MI and the National Lawyers Guild (NLG)-Detroit have filed amicus briefs on Pinkney’s behalf, the Michigan Court of Appeals (COA) has, once again, ruled against Pinkney.
In the latest brief, Pinkney’s legal counsel argued these four major points in requesting his convictions be reversed:
* Michigan Election Law MCL 168.937 does not create substantive offense of election forgery.
* Prosecution presented insufficient evidence to convict.
* Berrien County trial court instructed the jury that it could convict Pinkney of election forgery, even if he was not the perpetrator, under the theory of aiding-and-abetting.
* Michigan Rule of Evidence MRE 404(b) was violated, obstructing Pinkney’s constitutional right to free speech and due process.
First, the MCL 168.937 contains ambiguous, vague language that can be easily accepted or dismissed by a Michigan court even though there are several cases pending decision based on the interpretation of this law. In Pinkney’s case, the COA ruled against Pinkney.
Second, at trial, there was no evidence, no witnesses, and no confession, nothing to prove Pinkney was guilty of committing a crime. Instead, these facts were brought out in court:
* Three witnesses came forward and testified that they saw another individual (Venita Campbell, who was in charge of checking petitions as they came in for accuracy and voter eligibility) change dates on some of the petitions. (Prosecution claimed that Miss Campbell could not be found to appear and testify herself.) Instead, prosecution used these testimonies to accuse Pinkney of telling Campbell to change dates, an accusation that was not proven to be true.
* A County Commissioner testified she changed the date at her signature herself after she realized she had written the wrong date.
* Securing recall signatures was held mostly outside, knocking on doors, and standing on street corners during the winter months and different pens had to be used as the cold would quickly affect the flow of the ink.
* At trial, 95% of about 15 witnesses who gave sworn testimony told the court they signed the recall petition themselves and some stated they remembered having to use different pens. About five percent stated they could not recall details pertaining to which type or how many pens they used.
* Michigan forensics examiner, Mark Goff, testified that some dates were altered, but he could not determine who changed the dates.
Third, the trial court and prosecution used Pinkney’s community leadership, his activism, the support and assistance he provided to Benton Harbor residents (especially young, Black men), his courtroom watching, and his role as president of the Black Autonomy Network Community Organization (BANCO) as motivation to commit election forgery and, therefore, Pinkney must be convicted on the possibility of aiding-and-abetting. Of course, this is blatantly ludicrous and racist, and it was used as a means of removing Pinkney from his community, of locking Pinkney up to silence and isolate him. Even during the sentencing, the prosecution urged the judge to send a clear message to Pinkney and the community with a harsh sentence.
Fourth, Pinkney’s constitutional right to free speech and due process were violated. The prosecution brought up his activism often during the trial in a bid to influence and convince the jury that his widespread leadership and activism were motives that could convict Pinkney on these charges. The three COA judges agreed with the prosecution.
Indeed, Pinkney was host of a weekly radio show, he has the support of celebrities, such as Danny Glover (who attended a fundraiser with Pinkney and has been a longtime supporter), and Pinkney has taken his fight for justice and equality around the country. He has delivered speeches to the United Nations in New York City, at the national Local Democracy Convention in Madison and at various other organizational meetings as far away as California. During the trial and sentencing, it was clear to all who observed in the courtroom, that Berrien County officials, influenced by the power of the Whirlpool Corporation, considered Pinkney a community leader whom they were determined to stop no matter what. The COA has joined the trial court in stepping on Pinkney’s free speech rights.
The evidence is clear that the corrupt Michigan court system bends laws and rules, dismisses testimonies, submits unfounded charges, intimidates witnesses with antagonistic discord, and uses racist tactics to silence dissension in order to allow corporate rule and gentrification to take over Benton Harbor, a community that is about 90% Black with nearly half living in poverty (according to official statistics). Pinkney has clearly been punished for helping his community fight against the machine of corruption.
According to Pinkney and his counsel, the next step is to appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court. In June 2017, Pinkney will have been incarcerated for 2.5 years, the minimum sentence handed down. Will the Supreme Court do the right thing? Will it objectively weigh all the tenets of this case and rule accordingly?
Pinkney has spent the past five plus years warning Americans about the rise of fascism in our government through laws such as the Emergency Manager Law (originally Public Act 101) that has exasperated the situations in Detroit, Flint, and in many other Michigan cities, including Benton Harbor. The latest version of this law does not allow the public to make changes or vote, via referendum, to disallow the law.
Will you or I be next to suffer this nightmare?
What has happened to Rev. Edward Pinkney, an African-American man of faith with a huge heart, a fighter for freedom and rights for all, can happen to anyone. So do we refuse to be quiet and submissive? Do we refuse to accept the status quo and the growing chokehold of corporations and the corruption of too many local, state, and federal government officials? Pinkney says, “We must all join together, no matter what your color, creed, gender, sexual identity, age or religion, and fight! There are more of us than there are of them. Enough is enough!”
We are witnessing a rise in unrest among the young, minorities, homeless, poor, and middle class Americans as individuals and groups fight for survival, equality and justice. If we do not fight unlawful efforts to suffocate our freedoms, then is it only a matter of time when we can be arrested and/or fined, even charged and convicted unjustly for writing a letter-to-the-editor or for holding a sign in a peaceful protest or for writing an opinion on social media? We cannot sit idly by, watching and thinking that we will be okay because the Scales of Justice no longer exist for you and me.
Please show your support to Rev. Pinkney by writing to him at: Rev. Edward Pinkney #294671; N-E-93; Marquette Branch Prison;1960 U.S. Highway 41 South; Marquette, MI 49855. Donations to help with his legal counsel and other expenses are greatly appreciated. Go to http://bhbanco.org for more on this case.