Tuesday, March 28, 2006
Benton Harbor: Mistrial Declared in Racist Frame-up of Rev. Pinkney
The prosecution will decide by the end of the week on whether to reinstate the charges against Pinkney. In the meantime he remains free of all charges filed against him last year.
Pinkney had gained support from several organizations in the state of Michigan and throughout the country.
Jury can't reach verdict in Pinkney case
By SARAH Mc EVILLY
By JULIE SWIDWA
ST. JOSEPH — The election fraud trial of Edward Pinkney ended in a mistrial when the jury, after 20 hours of deliberations spanning three days, told the judge Monday that it could not reach a unanimous verdict.
The prosecution said it would decide by the end of the week whether it would retry the case.
Berrien County Trial Court Judge Alfred Butzbaugh declared a mistrial around 1:30 p.m. after the jury foreman sent the judge a note saying the panel remained deadlocked.
After deliberating two days, the jury told the judge on Friday that it was unable to reach a verdict. The judge told the 12 jurors to report back to court Monday morning to try again.
“The jury remains deadlocked,” the note said. “We followed your directions and we are clearly at an impasse. We are convinced that future deliberations are useless.” Pinkney’s lawyer, Tat Parish, was in favor of the mistrial, and there was no objection from Berrien County Assistant Prosecutor Gerald Vigansky.
Following a mistrial, the case can be retried. Parish said he and his client agreed that forcing the jury to continue deliberating would present a greater risk of acompromise verdict. After the judge declared the mistrial, Berrien County Prosecutor Jim Cherry told reporters he will decide by the end of the week whether his office will retry the case.
Pinkney hugged his supporters outside the courtroom. He declined to talk to reporters but he sang a victory song as he walked to his car outside the courthouse.
Pinkney, 57, of Benton Township, was charged with four felonies and a misdemeanor in connection with the Feb. 22, 2005, recall of City Commissioner Glenn Yarbrough.
Contacted by telephone Monday afternoon,Yarbrough was shocked to learn of the mistrial.
“I can’t believe it. I’m highly disappointed in the court system and the citizens of Berrien County,” Yarbrough said. “This shows that you can go do what you want to do, and you’ll get away with it.” Speculating that jurors might have been from out of the immediate area, Yarbrough said, “This decision doesn’t affect their area. Now the man will think he can do anything he wants to do. I think it’s a sad day for the citizens of Berrien County.” Yarbrough said he hopes Cherry will decide to retry the case.
After the recall election that stripped Yarbrough of his seat, Cherry brought a civil lawsuit against the city of Benton Harbor and N. Jean Nesbitt, the city clerk at the time. Cherry’s suit alleged voter fraud and sought to void the election.
Paul Maloney, Berrien County Trial Court’s chief judge, ruled after hearing the civil case that the election was tainted with fraud and another election should be held. In the second recall election, voters kept Yarbrough in office.
After the civil suit ended, Nesbitt was fired by the City Commission and Pinkney was arrested. Nesbitt has maintained she did nothing wrong and is suing the city in federal court.
During the civil case and- Pinkney’s criminal trial this month, witnesses testified they were told absentee voter ballot applications were job applications, were told to vote “yes” to bring jobs to Benton Harbor, and handed their absentee ballot envelopes over to Pinkney rather than mailing them.
Brenda Fox of Benton Harbor testified that Pinkney paid her to gather people to vote by absentee ballot at the clerk’s office the day before the election and that Pinkney paid them to vote.
In cross-examination, Parish tried to discredit the prosecutor’s witnesses, asking them if they were paid, threatened or otherwise coerced to testify against Pinkney.
One prosecution witness, Tommie Travis, had told police last year that Pinkney paid people to vote. But on the witness stand under oath last week, Travis told the court he lied to police because he was mad at Pinkney for not visiting him in jail, and that Pinkney never paid anyone to vote.
Parish said the case was full of “conflicting testimony from people with so many conflicting motives,” and the jury probably had trouble sorting out the truth.
Pinkney was charged with three five-year felony counts of improper possession of absentee ballots, one five-year felony count of influencing voters while they were voting, and a 90-day misdemeanor count of influencing voters with money.
Parish said if the jury was forced to continue deliberating, his client stood the risk of a compromise verdict, finding him guilty on some counts and not others. Parish said that would have been particularly dangerous to his client because, to the average person, the more serious counts might seem to be the least serious. Jurors are not supposed to know the possible penalties for the alleged crimes in a case.
“My client does not want to risk that compromise,” Parish told Judge Butzbaugh after Butzbaugh read the note from the jury Monday afternoon. “We’re not willing to take that risk after the jury has made an honest effort. Half justice is no justice.” Cherry said that before deciding whether to retry to case, he will try to talk with one or more jurors to find out what the split was and what evidence was not clear to the panel of six white men, four white women and two black women.
“We’ll find out if we could have presented the evidence differently. A free and untainted election is a basic right,” Cherry said.
Parish said he believes there was plenty of “reasonable doubt” in the minds of the jurors.
“I’m thankful that the jury was able to overcome what I view as a widespread presumption that Rev. Pinkney was guilty,” Parish said. “There is reasonable doubt.That is the standard of the law, and the jury applied that.” Citing “significant public and private resources” spent on the two-week trial, Parish said he hopes the prosecutor does not retry the case.
He called the case “a political nightmare” and said, “They ought to allow us to put this behind us.” During the trial, Parish said it is no secret Pinkney is known to be a “gadfly.” “His views may not be popular. I would hope this will not deter him in the future. Sometimes there’s a strong price tag in exercising First Amendment rights and values. I would hope he doesn’t give that up, but this (trial) certainly would have an impact on most people.”