On July 26 the Michigan Court of Appeals rejected the appeal of political prisoner Rev. Edward Pinkney. Convicted in Berrien County, Michigan, the community activist has already served over 19 months for supposedly altering dates on a recall petition against then Benton Harbor mayor James Hightower. His sentence of 2.5 to 10 years in prison has him currently locked up in the remote Marquette Branch Prison, almost 500 miles from his family and friends.
The Court of Appeals heard oral arguments from Rev. Pinkney’s attorney on May 11. Amicus briefs were also filed by the National Lawyers Guild and the American Civil Liberties Union, which was given leave to also argue before the court. Four issues were raised on appeal.
The first revolved around whether the alteration of dates on the petitions was even a felony under the specific law he was charged with violating. The law specifies acts by government officials who violate election laws. However the court decided that the provision in Pinkney’s case also applies to any individual, not just officials.
In an outrageous argument the court held that “sufficient evidence was presented to support the jury’s guilty verdicts” based entirely on the facts that Rev. Pinkney was “the leader in the recall efforts,” “had previously sponsored several recall campaigns,” “circulated 33 of the 62 recall petitions,” spoke at city commission and other meetings about the recall and “demonstrated animosity towards [mayor] Hightower in various ways.” The court decided that this alone is enough “to find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Rev. Pinkney is African American from a city that is 90% African American but was tried in front of an all-white jury by a white prosecutor and white judge. The court completely brushed off the effect of the prosecutor harping again and again on the defendant’s activist history on the jury, stating “the jury was properly instructed several times that it could only consider the other-acts evidence for motive purposes” and that “jurors are presumed to follow their instructions.”
The Court of Appeals then argued that even if Rev. Pinkney was not the one who altered dates on the petitions, he could be convicted for aiding and abetting another person who might have done so because Pinkney was “leader of the recall campaign.”
Finally the court upheld the introduction of Rev. Pinkney’s long career as a community activist as “motive” to commit election violations. These included “his radio show,” “his recall efforts in the local community,” “his speaking engagements across the country” and “his search for justice and equality in general.” According to the three judges this “showed that defendant had a motive to alter the dates on the recall petitions, thus providing evidence of the identification of the perpetrator.”
This last conclusion can condemn every political activist in the country to be guilty of any political crime just for being an activist. This threat to free speech is one reason for the intervention of the NLG and the ACLU in this case.
On July 27 Rev. Pinkney wrote to his supporters: "We are living in a time when the court system and the prosecutor don't need evidence to send a man to prison. I know they don't have any evidence, because I didn't do it. And the prosecutor knows I didn't do it. You have got to be very, very careful today, because if you take a stand against the system they'll do everything in their power to crush you. Now they can send you to prison and keep you there without evidence. Better keep your eyes and your mind on freedom, and keep freedom on your mind.
"What do you do now? Now that you can be sent to prison with no evidence? What's the next step for you? Now that there is a 100% chance of you being convicted if you are charged, what can you do? What should you do? This is the question I hope we are all asking ourselves."
It is expected that the case will be appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court in the next few months. Donations toward Rev. Pinkney’s defense can be made at bhbanco.org. Write to Rev. Edward Pinkney #294671, Marquette Branch Prison, 1960 U.S. Highway 41 South, Marquette, MI 49855.