Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Michigan Appeals Court Hears Oral Arguments in Case Against Rev. Edward Pinkney

Michigan Appeals Court Hears Oral Arguments in Case Against Rev. Pinkney

Packed courtroom illustrates broad support for African-American minister

by Abayomi Azikiwe
Editor, Pan-African News Wire

GRAND RAPIDS, MI, June 9 (PANW)--A new episode has been opened in the defense campaign for Rev. Edward Pinkney, the Benton Harbor cleryman who was sentenced to 3-10 years in prison for quoting scriptures out of the Bible. Pinkney, who served a year in over six Michigan prisons, was not present at today's hearing where a team of lawyers sought to have the court overturn four felonies counts and a revocation of probation sentence handed-down by Judge Dennis Wiley of Berrien County.

Pinkney was initially found guilty by an all-white jury in Berrien County for vote fraud. He was convicted on four felony counts and one misdemeanor. The first trial ended in a hung jury, however, the charges were re-filed and he was found guilty 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 results of the recall election and placed the Commissioner back in office. Felony and misdemeanor charges were then filed against the BANCO leader.

The Appeals hearing was packed with supporters of Pinkney from various cities throughout Michigan as well as Illinois. Minister Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, attended the hearing 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 and were not able to enter the courtroom because it was packed to capacity.

The Appeals Court security personnel informed the approximately 100 people who stood outside the entrance on the second floor of the building, that only 48 people were allowed in the room at one time. Numerous organizations were represented in the courtroom and outside including the Michigan Emergency Committee Against War & Injustice, the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, the Green Party of Michigan, the Michigan Coalition for Human Rights, 'Call Em Out' of Detroit, the People's Tribune newspaper, among others.

In the aftermath of the hearing, Attorney Michael Steinberg, the Legal Director of the Michigan American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), spoke to supporters of Pinkney outside the State Appeals Court Building on the legal developments surrounding the case.

"In America a person cannot be thrown in prison for speech," the lawyer said.

However, this is exactly what happened when Pinkney published an article in the People's Tribune in December 2007. He was ordered arrested and sentenced to 3-10 years in prison for allegedly threatening the life of Judge Alfred Butzbaugh, the original trial jurist and his family in Berrien County, Michigan.

Steinberg said that Pinkney "expressed frustration and used harsh language to criticize the judge. However, individuals can crticize government officials." Pinkney, who was under house arrest at the time and on a tether, was then arrested and sent to prison.

After the sentencing of Pinkney by Judge Wiley, the ACLU filed an appeal of the sentence. Both the issue of the underlying conviction and sentence is also being appealed along with the 3-10 imprisonment for the newspaper article that quoted the Bible.

Pinkney is currently out on $10,000 bond and 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

Steinberg said that the ACLU has been involved in Benton Harbor since 2003 when a rebellion erupted after the death of an African American motorcyclist who was being chased by police. The civil disturbances in Benton Harbor lasted for three days and attracted national attention to the southwest Michigan city.

Pinkney had become a staunch critic of the political and legal system in Berrien County. His organization, the Black Autonomy Network of Community Organizers (BANCO), had been carrying out regular demonstrations against racism and injustice in the county.

Also Pinkney and other organization members were involved in monitoring the county courts and had openly criticized judges on the bench 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."

Steinberg continued by pointing out that the "state provides no money for indigent defense. We have filed a class action lawsuit to address the issue of the justice system in Berrien County," he said.

Dorothy Pinkney, the wife of Rev. Edward Pinkney, attended the hearing and spoke to the crowd outside the courtroom. She brought a message from her husband saying that "Victory in ours--we have shown the people in Berrien County that we have support."

Mrs. Pinkney went to say "Thank you for your support."

Later at the St. Mark's Church in downtown Grand Rapids, Pinkney spoke with supporters over a cell phone saying that "We not only showed-up but we showed-out." His tone was optimistic and he felt that the convictions would eventually be overturned.

Minister Louis Farrakhan who attended the hearing in Grand Rapids, also spoke in Berrien County on June 5 at Lake Michigan College. He expressed his support for Pinkney and said that "Mrs. Pinkney, my dear suffering sister, I'm honored to be here on behalf of your husband."

Farrakhan went to say that "Jesus was an activist and a revolutionary." A number of clergy have filed an amicus brief on behalf of Pinkney as well. He has also being supported by law professors from a number of universities in Michigan who filed another amicus brief on his behalf earlier in the year.

The city of Benton Harbor is majority African-American and has been severely affected by the current economic crisis. A plan to create a development project called Harbor Shores, is slated to take large portions of lake front property at Klock Park 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.

Neighboring St. Joseph is the seat of Berrien County where the courts are located. The city is majority white and is far more affluent than Benton Harborn and Benton Township.

Steinberg said that the State Appeals Court will issue a written decision on the matter. In regard to a timeline, the ACLU attorney said that the decision could come down within two week or up to two months.
Abayomi Azikiwe is the editor of the Pan-African News Wire and has followed developments in Benton Harbor since the rebellion in 2003. He has traveled several times to Berrien County to cover meetings, demonstrations and court hearings surrounding the Pinkney case.

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