By Hugh “Buck” Davis
The campaign of the power structure in St. Joseph/Berrien County, Michigan against the poorest city in the state, Benton Harbor (94% black, 70% unemployed) and the leader of the resistance, the Reverend Edward Pinkney, took a dangerous and destructive turn on July 26, 2008, when Pinkney was found to be in violation of the terms of his probation for “threatening” the trial judge by paraphrasing Chapter 30 of Deuteronomy to the effect that God will punish those who persist in the path of injustice.
To recap, Reverend Pinkney proved in 2005 that you have a right to free speech until you start to make a difference. He successfully engineered the recall campaign of the corrupt political boss of Benton Harbor who was collaborating with the power structure (Whirlpool Corporation and the Cornerstone Alliance) to take some of the most valuable property owned by Benton Harbor and turn it into a luxury residential/resort/condominium/marina/Jack Nicklaus golf course, depriving the once proud industrial city of its “in perpetuity” park on Lake Michigan and other valuable riverfront property.
Immediately thereafter, the recalled supervisor and the county sheriff swept through the community, threatening absentee voters and their families in order to obtain evidence that the recall election was tainted by fraud and that Pinkney, the leader of the recall, bought votes. By threats and bribery, the authorities ultimately came up with a few vulnerable citizens (e.g.- drug addicts, prisoners, probationers, prostitutes, those with loved ones in jeopardy) to claim that Pinkney either paid a few people from a soup kitchen $5.00 to vote absentee ballots or that Pinkney improperly handled otherwise valid absentee ballots by delivering them from the voter to the city clerk. Interestingly, buying votes is a misdemeanor. But having possession of an absentee ballot without any criminal intent is a felony.
The prosecutor sued the Benton Harbor City Clerk to set aside the election and the City refused to defend its own clerk. The local judge, who sat on the election commission and had opposed the recall petition, ruled that the election was invalid because it seemed bad, even though the prosecutor could not show enough “fraudulent” ballots to change the results. That judge, the Honorable Paul Maloney, has since been appointed by Bush to the federal bench in the Western District of Michigan.
After the election was set aside, the prosecutor brought criminal charges against Pinkney, intimidating his supporters while the establishment put money into the new election and the recall was reversed.
In his first trial, Pinkney had two black jurors and got a mistrial. In his second trial, despite a jury challenge, Pinkney had an all white jury, which convicted him on all counts.
Prior to sentencing, Pinkney took a polygraph test which exonerated him on every single element of every charge against him, but the prosecutor refused to run an official polygraph, presumably because they already knew that they had framed an innocent man. The trial judge, Alfred Butzbaugh, former President of the Michigan State Bar and the most progressive judge on the bench, refused the prosecutor and probation department’s request to put Pinkney in prison, giving him a year in jail and leaving him out on tether during the post-trial proceedings.
That was May 2007. In December 2007, the probation department, which had been monitoring Pinkney minutely on his probation and tether, apparently expanded its interest in Pinkney’s political activities to reading a story that Pinkney wrote in the November 2007 issue of The People’s Tribune, a leftist paper published by the League of Revolutionaries for a New America, published in Chicago. In it, Pinkney, as he has for years, called the criminal justice system in Berrien County racist, corrupt and ignorant.
Without consulting Judge Butzbaugh, the probation department went to the allegedly worst racist on the Berrien County Bench (Dennis Wiley). He signed a probation violation warrant against Pinkney based on the premise that Pinkney was forbidden to defame or harass anyone as a condition of his probation. At the original violation hearing before Butzbaugh, he agreed that it was protected speech and refused to find a violation.
Judge Butzbaugh then sua sponte pointed to another portion of the same article in which Pinkney, naming Butzbaugh specifically, as well as the court and the power structure of St. Joseph/Berrien County generaly, warned them if they continued in the ways of injustice, then they, their families and the community would suffer consequences at the hand of God. Judge Butzbaugh adjourned the hearing to consider whether this constituted a “threat” against him in violation of Pinkney’s probation. He later entered an order finding it to be a probable violation, but disqualifying himself from the hearing, which he transferred to Judge Wiley.
Pinkney challenged Judge Wiley as biased, since Pinkney had for years directly accused Wiley of being among “Benton Harbor’s most wanted for crimes against humanity” wearing t-shirts to that effect at rallies, demonstrations, in the courthouse and in Wiley’s courtroom. Wiley had Pinkney removed from his courtroom because of the t-shirt at least twice and had forced Pinkney to take off the t-shirt when he was brought in for the arraignment on the probation violation. Judge Wiley held a hearing and determined that he was not biased. Pinkney appealed to the Chief Judge, Butzbaugh, to disqualify Wiley and the entire Berrien County bench. Butzbaugh denied the motion and sent the hearing back to Wiley.
During this entire time, the prosecutor, being confident, never filed a substantive memorandum or paper, put on any witnesses or otherwise attempted to justify their position. The ACLU filed an amicus brief clearly indicating that making a statement in a publication paraphrasing the biblical prophecies and calling on divine intervention in the iniquitous affairs of society has been found not to be a “true threat” outside the First Amendment. At the hearing, the prosecution did nothing more than present the newspaper article.
Pinkney testified that it was not intended as a threat to any person in particular, but reflected his belief that injustice would bring about divine retribution. A prominent pastor, educated at Union Theological Seminary in New York, testified to the history and nature of those portions of the book of Deuteronomy in the Old Testament and that they did not contemplate any human action, either directly or indirectly, against the objects of the prophecy.
Judge Wiley summoned up a full load of righteous indignation that anyone should make such statements and found them to be true threats, rejecting the ACLU amicus. He then proceeded to revoke Pinkney’s probation and sentenced him to 3 to 10 years in prison, twice what had been asked by the Probation Department and the Prosecutor.
The appeal of this horrendous decision, making Pinkney the only known preacher in the history of America to be imprisoned for quoting the Bible, is a joint ACLU-NLG project in which the ACLU will handle the First Amendment substantive claim and Guild attorneys will handle the disqualification/sentencing issues.
In addition, Pinkney’s direct appeal is pending and a petition for clemency has been submitted to Michigan Governor Granholm and the Parole Board.
Those wishing to keep up with developments or lend support can:
1. Monitor the BANCO (Black Autonomous Network of Community Organizations) blogspot (bhbanco.blogspot.com);
2. Send money to the Reverend Edward Pinkney Defense Fund, 1940 Union Street, Benton Harbor, Michigan, 49022; and/or
3. Send letters to the Honorable Jennifer Granholm in support of clemency at the Michigan Department of Corrections, Office of the Parole Board, Pardons and Commutations Coordinator, P.O. Box 30003, Lansing, Michigan, 48909