One year ago a Berrien County, Michigan jury was unable to reach a verdict in a “voting fraud” trial in western Michigan of Rev. Edward Pinkney, a leader in the struggle for jobs, housing, good schools and justice in Benton Harbor, Michigan. Benton Harbor, a town of about 11,000 people, over 90% black and overwhelmingly poor, burst onto the national scene in 2003 when its young people rose up in response to a series of local police killings and beatings.
Apparently, from a police/prosecutor/power structure standpoint, the problem with last year’s trial was that there were too many blacks on the jury. Two, to be exact. So last month, in March of 2007, when they re-tried Rev. Pinkney for the second time, they made sure to correct that problem. This time every single person on the jury was white.
And it worked. This time Rev. Pinkney was convicted on five counts of improprieties in connection with a successful 2005 recall election involving the City of Benton Harbor’s most powerful commissioner, Glen Yarbrough. Pinkney is now under house arrest, awaiting sentencing scheduled for May 14th. He is facing 20 years.
Three of the five charges, each with a potential five years in prison, were for “handling” an absentee ballot. Pinkney was also charged with paying people $5.00 to vote a certain way in the 2005 election. What he actually did was to ask a local woman, Brenda Fox, a drug-user and prostitute who Pinkney has helped in the past, to recruit 10-15 community people to pass out leaflets in return for $5.00, a completely legal practice.
Brenda Fox turned out to be the prosecution’s primary witness. She “agreed” to do this after being taken into the local police station for “questioning” following the 2005 election. During the trial, under cross-examination by Pinkney lawyer Elliot Hall, former counsel to the Detroit NAACP, Fox broke down completely on the stand, began crying and could not go on.
Back in 2005, a young man named Mancel Williams made a tape recording before City Commissioner Etta Harper saying that Yarbrough, the recalled City Commissioner, had paid him $10.00 to claim that Pinkney had paid him $5.00. This recording was turned over to the police, but nothing was ever done about it.
The all white jury, in the opinion of those who were there, was clearly intimidated by the large number of Pinkney supporters in the courtroom and around the courthouse, most of whom were obviously poor. Midway through the trial the judge locked the courtroom to spectators, who could only come in before the session began or on break. Security was increasingly beefed up.
All of this and more led to the conclusion desired by the local power structure, a power structure which includes the Whirlpool Corporation whose world headquarters is across the river in overwhelmingly white St. Joseph, Michigan. City Commissioner Yarbrough, back in office after his recall was overturned by a George Bush-nominated local judge, is the primary backer of Whirlpool’s efforts to take 465 acres of riverfront Benton Harbor to build a half a billion dollar marina/residential/golf course complex, Harbor Shores.
As stated in a document produced by Rev. Pinkney and his supporters after the trial, “These jurors were ordinary working class and middle class whites, themselves on the edge of economic insecurity. As the economy of Berrien County continues to decline, they needed to believe that what has happened to Benton Harbor will not happen to them. They needed to believe that what is good for Whirlpool is good for them. They needed to believe that somehow the ‘Harbor Shores’ development for rich people from somewhere else will be good for them. They failed to understand that they are one layoff, one injury or one illness from needing the same social services as the people in Benton Harbor. They failed to understand that the campaign for universal health care, education, productive jobs, limited development, protection of the environment, etc., can only be achieved when they unite around the protection of the poorest and most dispossessed, as opposed to running away from the obvious horror of life in Benton Harbor.”
Progressives around the country are needed NOW to take action on this case. It is critical that people write letters to the judge who will be sentencing Rev. Pinkney next month. Letters should be respectful but should address the all white jury issue, the importance of protecting free speech, the fact that any time in prison would be an injustice for someone like this courageous and principled man.
Letters should be addressed to The Honorable Alfred M. Butzbaugh, Berrien County Circuit Court, 811 Port St., St. Joseph, Mi. 49085-1187, BUT they should be SENT TO: Hugh M. Davis, Constitutional Litigation Associates, P.C., 450 W. Fort St., Su. 200, Detroit, Mi. 48226. The phone number is 313-961-2255; the fax is 313-961-5999; and the email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contributions are also urgently needed for the appeals which are being prepared. They can be sent to BANCO, 1940 Union St., Benton Harbor, Mi. 49022. Rev. Pinkney can be contacted directly at 269-925-0001. And more information can be found at http://bhbanco.blogspot.com.
We cannot forget Benton Harbor.