Supporters pack court as Rev. Pinkney barred from his own hearing By Abayomi Azikiwe, Editor, Pan-African News Wire
Grand Rapids, Mich.
Published Jun 21, 2009 11:16 PM
A new episode has opened in the defense campaign for Rev. Edward Pinkney, a Benton Harbor, Mich., clergyman and leader of the Black Autonomy Network Community Organization (BANCO). Pinkney had been sentenced to three-to-10 years in prison for quoting Bible scriptures.
Pinkney served one year, during which he was moved to at least six Michigan prisons. Now at home but restricted by an electronic “tether,” he was not allowed to be present at his June 9 hearing before the Third District Court of Appeals in Grand Rapids, Mich. There, a team of defense lawyers sought to have the court overturn four felony counts and a revocation of probation sentence, which had been handed down by Judge Dennis Wiley of Berrien County.
An initial trial in which Pinkney was charged with voter fraud ended in a hung jury in 2006. However, the charges were re-filed in 2007 and he was convicted on four felony counts and one misdemeanor in what many claim was a sham trial.
BANCO had carried out a successful recall campaign against a city commissioner in Benton Harbor in 2005. Later, a judge threw out the recall election results and placed the commissioner back in office. The felony and misdemeanor charges were then filed against Pinkney.
Supporters from various cities throughout Michigan and Illinois packed the courtroom on June 9. Minister Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, came from Chicago. A group of clergymen traveled from Detroit, including Rev. Ed Rowe of Central United Methodist Church and Pastor Bill Wylie-Kellerman of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. They were not able to enter the courtroom because it was packed to capacity.
The court’s security personnel informed the approximately 100 people who stood outside the courtroom that only 48 people were allowed inside at one time.
Numerous organizations were represented in the courtroom and outside including Michigan Emergency Committee Against War & Injustice; Michigan Welfare Rights Organization; Green Party of Michigan; Michigan Coalition for Human Rights; ‘Call Em Out’ of Detroit; and People’s Tribune newspaper.
In the hearing’s aftermath, attorney Michael Steinberg, the Legal Director of the Michigan American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), spoke on legal developments surrounding the case. He said, “In America, a person cannot be thrown in prison for speech.”
However, this is exactly what happened when Pinkney published an article in the People’s Tribune in December 2007. Under house arrest at the time and on a tether, Pinkney was then arrested and sentenced to prison for allegedly threatening the life of Judge Alfred Butzbaugh, the original trial jurist, and his family in Berrien County, Mich.
Steinberg said Pinkney “expressed frustration and used harsh language to criticize the judge. However, individuals can criticize government officials.”
The ACLU filed an appeal after Pinkney’s sentencing by Judge Wiley. The underlying conviction and the sentence are both being appealed, along with the three-to-10 year imprisonment for the newspaper article that quoted the Bible.
Pinkney is currently out on a $10,000 bond; however, he is still confined to his home in Benton Harbor. He remains on a 24-hour tether and has been prohibited by Judge Wiley from leaving his house, preaching and engaging in politics.
Benton Harbor: The struggle continues
The majority African-American city of Benton Harbor has been severely affected by the current economic crisis. A plan to create a development project is slated to take large portions of lakefront property for the construction of luxury homes and a golf course.
BANCO and other organizations are opposed to the project because they perceive it as a mechanism for forcing African Americans from Benton Harbor.
Steinberg said the ACLU has been involved in Benton Harbor since 2003, when a rebellion erupted after the death of an African-American motorcyclist chased by police. The civil disturbances in Benton Harbor lasted for three days and attracted national attention to this southwest Michigan city.
Pinkney had become a staunch critic of Berrien County’s political and legal system. His organization, BANCO, carried out regular demonstrations against racism and injustice there. BANCO members also monitored county courts and openly criticized judges for the disparate sentencing of African Americans.
According to Steinberg, “The criminal justice system in Berrien County is broken and must be changed. The public defenders system is contracted out to the lowest bidder and there is inadequate counsel for defendants brought before the courts.
“The state provides no money for indigent defense. We [the ACLU] have filed a class action lawsuit to address the issue of the justice system in Berrien County.”
Dorothy Pinkney, Rev. Pinkney’s spouse, attended the hearing on June 9 and spoke to the crowd outside the courtroom. She brought a message in which Pinkney thanked his supporters and said, “Victory is ours—we have shown the people in Berrien County that we have support.”
Later at the St. Mark’s Church in downtown Grand Rapids, Pinkney said via a cell phone: “We not only showed up but we showed out.” His tone was optimistic and he said that he felt the convictions would eventually be overturned.
Several members of the clergy and law professors from many universities in Michigan have filed amicus briefs on Pinkney’s behalf.
Steinberg said that the State Appeals Court would issue a written decision in Pinkney’s case.
Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam also spoke in Berrien County on June 5 at Lake Michigan College. He expressed support for Pinkney, saying, “Jesus was an activist and a revolutionary.”
Abayomi Azikiwe is editor of the Pan-African News Wire and has followed developments in Benton Harbor since the rebellion occurred there in 2003. He has traveled several times to Berrien County to cover meetings, demonstrations and court hearings surrounding the Pinkney case.