FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
from Benton Harbor BANCO (Black Autonomy Network Community Organization)
(email firstname.lastname@example.org for contact information)
Constitutional Rights Violations Alleged in Case of Rev. Edward Pinkney of Benton Harbor, MI
Grand Rapids, Michigan, July 14, 2015 — Last Monday an appeal bond motion was filed in the Michigan Court of Appeals, District III (Grand Rapids), on behalf of Rev. Edward Pinkney, 66. In the accompanying brief, the defense argued that the trial court in Berrien County violated Pinkney’s constitutional and due process rights. Supporters of Pinkney are calling for his immediate release on bond pending appeal.
A veteran community activist from Benton Harbor, Pinkney was convicted last November on five felony counts of forgery based on allegations that he changed five dates on a petition intended to recall Mayor James Hightower. Currently in Lakeland Correctional Facility in Coldwater, he maintains his innocence and faces 30 to 120 months in prison. If successful, the issues of his appeal would prevent retrial on grounds of double jeopardy. Pinkney has already spent nearly seven months in prison since his sentencing last December.
Pinkney’s defense team argued that there was constitutionally insufficient evidence for the conviction. At trial, Mark Goff, a forensic document examiner with the Michigan State Police, testified that changes to the petitions were made in different ink, but he could not determine when the changes were made, by whom, or whether they were changed by the signers themselves. Three witnesses indicated that another person altered the petitions when they were not in Pinkney’s possession and without his knowledge. No witness testimony nor physical evidence supported the charge that Pinkney changed the dates.
Drawing on transcripts of the week-long trial, Pinkney’s defense further argued that Prosecutor Mike Sepic “violated the Michigan Rules of Evidence, the First Amendment, and due process by introducing evidence of Pinkney’s speech, political activity and community activity.” According to the defense, cross-examining Pinkney and other witnesses about these topics violated his constitutional rights of free speech, particularly political speech, under the First Amendment. The defense also argued that Sepic’s failure to provide proper notice before the cross-examination violated Michigan Rules of Evidence. Sepic alleged that the line of questioning pointed to Pinkney’s motive, whereas the defense argued it violated due process by merely attempting to show a propensity by Pinkney to commit the alleged forgeries.
When Pinkney’s attorney objected to this line of cross-examination based on free speech and association concerns, Judge Sterling Schrock asked counsel to approach the bench and stated, “What I am asking you not to do is…using constitutional rights and using things like that” and “There are ways to say that without using that rhetoric which clearly plays on emotions.”
In a recent communication from Coldwater, Pinkney said, “The judge can’t just dismiss constitutional rights by calling them emotional rhetoric. Historically our system was developed to safeguard people from dubious and unjust convictions.”
Pinkney and his supporters believe his human rights activism has made him a target of political persecution by Whirlpool and local governments. In just one recent example, his arrest warrant for non-violent charges was served by a SWAT team that surrounded his home at gunpoint. Such tactics, he says, are designed to intimidate all Benton Harbor residents who speak up against Whirlpool and local officials.
Pinkney and other members of the Benton Harbor community group, BANCO (Black Autonomy Network Community Organization), have lead multiple petition drives to recall local officials as one strategy of their campaign to promote democracy, civil rights, and economic justice in the county. Whirlpool Corp. is headquartered in Benton Harbor, which is 96% African-American and has among the highest unemployment and poverty rates in the state. Mayor Hightower’s opposition to a city income tax that would have affected Whirlpool resulted in the community’s effort to recall him.
BANCO and Pinkney have protested the four emergency managers, appointed by the governor under Michigan’s controversial Emergency Manager Law, currently operating the city instead of democratically-elected officials. BANCO was also among the most vocal opponents of a golf course and luxury development that appropriated lakeshore land formerly designated as a Benton Harbor city park.
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