Civil Rights leader unable to gain justice in southwest Michigan
By Abayomi Azikiwe
Editor, Pan-African News Wire
St. Joseph, Michigan
Another post-conviction motions hearing took place on April 14 in St.
Joseph, Michigan involving the conviction by an all-white jury late
last year of a leading Civil Rights activist, Rev. Edward Pinkney.
People traveled from throughout the state of Michigan and across the
United States to support the Berrien County leader who many feel has
been denied justice by a corporate-controlled racist system in the
southwest region of the state.
Rev. Pinkney, the leader of the Black Autonomy Network Community
Organization (BANCO), was present in the courtroom in St. Joseph,
Michigan, the seat of Berrien County. Defense Attorney Tat Parish
requested that the handcuffs be taken off of Pinkney, but to no avail.
Judge Sterling Schrock, who continues to preside over the case where
the BANCO leader was convicted on five felony counts for forgery
involving the purported changing of dates on recall petitions designed
to remove Benton Harbor Mayor James Hightower, denied the request
saying it was up to the discretion of the Michigan Department of
Corrections (MDOC). No MDOC officials appeared to have been in the
courtroom since Pinkney was transported to the Berrien County jail the
night before from Coldwater where he is being held on a sentence of
There were two motions heard before Judge Schrock resulting in
decisions that clearly violate the civil rights of Pinkney, a
long-time organizer in the county. The first of the egregious
decisions stemmed from a prosecution motion requesting restitution to
Mayor Hightower due to purported harm done to him by Pinkney during
the recall campaign of 2014.
The judge ordered that Pinkney pay restitution to Benton Harbor Mayor
James Hightower, who is up for re-election this year, in the amount of
$1,736.17, saying the politician suffered economic and psychological
damage due to the recall campaign aimed at removing him from office in
2014. Hightower did not even bother to appear in court and the
prosecutor Michael Sepic, who submitted the motion, argued on his
Human resources director Susan Leach of Lakeland Hospital where
Hightower is employed in addition to his mayoral post, was subpoenaed
to testify by the defense. She reported that Hightower is a salaried
employee and did not lose any pay during the course of the recall
campaign and the trial of Pinkney, where he testified. Nonetheless,
the court ruled against Pinkney.
Motion for a New Trial Denied
The other motion presented by the defense requested a new trial based
on the connections which existed between juror Gail Freehland of
neighboring Three Oaks and the family of Sharon Tyler, the Berrien
County Clerk, who was a key witness in the prosecution of Pinkney.
Relationships were clearly established through a series of witnesses
called by the defense.
The former juror Ms. Freehland was called to testify saying she did
not have any social relationships with the Berrien County officials in
question. Other witnesses called by the defense not only substantiated
a connection but longtime friendships between these elements in the
Tyler’s partner, Danny Gross, the former president of Three Oaks
village, was also subpoenaed to testify by the defense. He did admit
that he had known Freehland “all her life” but said he was not aware
if the former juror was acquainted with his partner, Berrien County
Clerk Sharon Tyler.
Gross owns a restaurant in the county and stated that Freehland had
been in his business. The former Three Oaks leader acknowledged that
his daughters were around the same age as Freehland and that they knew
Later Gross’ daughter Jody was called to testify and stated that she
has “known Freehland for thirty years.” She mentioned during her
testimony that she sees Freehland at least once or twice a year and
that they were friends of Facebook.
Later Gail Gross, another daughter of Danny, testified that she and
Freehland “attended the same school system” although Freehland is
younger. When asked by defense lawyer Parish if the two were friends,
Grosse said “she considered her a friend.”
Prosecutor Sepic said the defense arguments seeking to draw
connections and social relationships between these personalities
involved in the trial of Pinkney were “preposterous.” Later saying
that there was no connections established.
Parish said for the defense that “there is every reason to suggest
connections” and this was not disclosed during the jury screening
process known voir dire.
Consequently, Judge Schrock agreed with Sepic. He denied the motion
for a new trial and re-emphasized that Pinkney did not qualify for
bond pending the outcome of his appeal which is being filed in an
attempt to overturn his convictions on the felony charges.
During the course of the trial in 2014, no witnesses were brought
forward by the prosecution who testified that they saw or believed
that Pinkney changed the dates on five signatures on the recall
petitions. Both the prosecution and the judge repeatedly stated that
the evidence against Pinkney was “circumstantial”, yet no
circumstantial evidence was ever presented.
Pinkney was then ushered out of the courtroom and transported bac to
state prison in Coldwater. His next step will be to bring the case
before the appeals court where many believe he has a good chance of
Demonstration Held Outside Court House
After the hearing ended, dozens of people remained behind to carry out
a demonstration outside the Berrien County Court. Activists from
Chicago, Flint, Detroit, Oak Park and other areas spoke out against
what they saw as a travesty of justice.
Berrien County is dominated by the Whirpool Corporation, a
multi-billion dollar firm. Pinkney and BANCO are staunch critics of
the company saying that it is behind the prosecution and imprisonment.
A demonstration against Whirpool products sold at Lowe’s Department in
Southfield, Michigan, suburb of Detroit, is scheduled to be held on
Friday April 24. Activists are attempting to expose the role of
corporations in the politics of Berrien County and southwest Michigan.
Distributed By: THE PAN-AFRICAN RESEARCH AND DOCUMENTATION PROJECT--
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