Benton Harbor Community Organizer Sentenced to One Year in Jail, 5 Years on Probation

Community organizer Edward Pinkney was sentenced to one-year in jail yesterday stemming from allegations of voter fraud in a case that highlighted the racial and economic disparities between Benton Harbor and St. Joseph.

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photo of edward pinkney outside berrien county courthouse

Yesterday, the Reverend Edward Pinkney, a community organizer in Benton Harbor, Michigan who works with the Black Autonomy Network of Community Organizers (BANCO), was sentenced to one year in jail and five years probation at the Berrien County Court House. Pinkney, who following a trial that ended in a hung jury in 2006 was retried this March, was convicted of four felonies and a misdemeanor with all of the charges stemming from allegations of voter fraud in an eventually overturned recall election that unseated a city commissioner. Pinkney, an African-American man from Benton Harbor–which is 92% African-American–was convicted by an all white jury. Pinkney had faced a maximum of forty-three months in prison.

The sentencing began earlier than scheduled at 1:23pm, with a series of motions filed by Pinkney’s lawyers that attempted to reduce the minimum and maximum sentence. The proceedings–barely audible to those in the gallery–appeared disorganized and chaotic, with the defense lawyers, judge Alfred Butzbaugh, and the prosecutor arguing about whether memos were received, what the nature of certain charges were, and debating Pinkney’s past criminal record. Some sentencing guidelines were reduced while others were increased.

Following these briefings, defense attorney Hugh Davis argued that the judge was faced with the task of “sentencing an honest, more importantly, innocent man.” Davis argued that the judge finally had the opportunity to make his views known and side with the cause of justice, arguing that the judge could see that Pinkney was not a threat and indeed his efforts in the community should be praised. He explained that election improprieties are common place in Benton Harbor and that Pinkney should receive jail time or probation rather than be sentenced to prison. Davis asserted that Pinkney “speaks for those who have few to speak for them and against those who few speak against” and that he simply “told the truth as he sees it.”

The prosecutor called Pinkney a “pathological liar” and argued that past convictions and his alleged lies in the past show that Pinkney acts “for his own purpose.” The prosecutor told the judge that Pinkney was convicted of four felonies and a misdemeanor for voter fraud and that those convictions coupled with his previous convictions mean that he should receive a minimum sentence of fourteen months in prison.

Pinkney then took the podium to argue his case, telling the judge that he “stands before you as an innocent man.” Pinkney argued that a recent polygraph is further proof of his innocence and said that none of the witnesses whose testimony he was convicted on could pass a polygraph. Pinkney said simply “what they’re saying I did not do.” He argued that he has a reputation of acting to “help the people of Benton Harbor by any means necessary” and that this is his duty as both human and a reverend.

Following these statements, Judge Alfred Butzbaugh began by explaining that he received close to one-thousand letters in support of Reverend Pinkney. The letters came from entities such as the Michigan Association of Black Social Workers and the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, as well as supporters from outside the county and from those living in the county. Butzbaugh said that 53% of the letters highlighted concerns about the jury being exclusively white, with the rest being some variation of form letters. The judge rejected concerns about the racial make up of the jury, arguing that Pinkney misrepresented the situation when asking supporters to send letters. Specifically, the judge charged that Pinkney neglected to tell supporters that 10.6% of the jury pool was black and that the defendant’s lawyers agreed to dismiss four black jurors.

Judge Butzbaugh dismissed Pinkney’s assertion that he was targeted for challenging “the white power structure” that wanted to redevelop Benton Harbor, with the judge stating that the charges from Pinkney were “not credible.” Specifically, he argued that Pinkney’s 2005 recall had nothing to do with the sale of land to Harbor Shores and that it was about police misconduct. The judge described this as the type of inconsistency that seems to follow Pinkney, citing his history of alleged dishonesty. He argued that while Pinkney has undoubtedly done some good in his life, he has done things “showing deep character flaws.” He further asserted that Pinkney has a “lack of respect for the requirements of society.”

It came as a surprise then when judge Butzbaugh announced that Pinkney would not be sentenced to prison. Instead, Butzbaugh gave Pinkney a one-year jail term and five years of probation. While the probation terms were still being decided, the judge stated that Pinkney would be restricted from being involved in any election campaign and would have to perform at least 100 hours of community service per year. In addition, a series of fines and court costs were to be assessed along with costs for overseeing his probation. Butzbaugh temporarily suspended the start of Pinkney’s jail time while he considered further suspension. The initial suspension of seven days was granted on the condition that Pinkney leave the court house and be home within fifteen minutes. Pinkney was instructed that he was not allowed to leave his home and was not allowed to go into his yard.

Supporters began the day with a march to the Berrien County Court House, located in the adjacent city of St. Joseph. Reverend Pinkney led a march of around 30 supporters chanted “No Justice, No Peace” as they marched, stopping briefly outside the court house to rally before filing into the court room.

Like the case and the issues it raises about racism, representation, and inequality, the difference between the two cities is incredibly stark. Benton Harbor’s downtown is characterized by broken glass and empty buildings, but as soon as one crosses the bridge into St. Joseph, the streets are better maintained, the buildings are not empty, and it is clear that there is more money in the community. Indeed, aside from being visibly obvious, a look at the racial and income levels of the two cities bear this out, with Benton Harbor being 92% African-American and St. Joseph being 90% white and median household incomes being $17,471 in Benton Harbor and $37,032 according to the 2000 US Census.

Pinkney and his Black Autonomy Network of Community Organizers (BANCO) argue that this is exactly why he was targeted. They say he challenged the status quo, he mobilized the disenfranchised, and he ultimately threatens the white power structure that controls the two communities. It remains to be seen what will ultimately happen to Pinkney and how his case will effect organizing efforts in Benton Harbor, but it is clear that the conditions he was fighting continue to persist and that much work remains to be done.

Author: mediamouse

Grand Rapids independent media // mediamouse.org