A Leader in a Struggling City Bled by U.S. Trade Schemes is Cast into State Prison
Thou Shalt Not Write About Judges
By Mark Anderson
In what many see as a shocking miscarriage of justice and denial of free speech, a black minister from southwest Michigan was sentenced on June 26 to up to 10 years in state prison for writing an opinion article in a Chicago newspaper about a judge.
The Rev. Edward Pinkney's sentence was handed down by Berrien County Trial Court Judge Dennis Wiley, a former prosecutor who took the case after Chief Judge Alfred Butzbaugh recused himself because Pinkney's article was partly about him. Judge Butzbaugh felt that the article, steeped in biblical references about God smiting this judge for his official actions but devoid of any personal threats, still somehow threatened him and his family, but he passed the matter on to Wiley.
"Wiley found that Pinkney had threatened ... Judge Butzbaugh and used demeaning language, violations of a probation sentence Butzbaugh imposed in May 2007 for election fraud charges," reported The Herald Palladium, a stenographic daily newspaper notorious for its unflinching belief in the official version of events. All relevant judicial edicts, the operations of the sheriff's department and other official policies and procedures have been taken at face value by the Palladium and other conventional media. No meaningful questions have been asked by the area's docile print and broadcast reporters.
So, because Judge Wiley "found" the article threatening without any apparent independent review of the entire article by an impartial party, he sent Pinkney, now 59, up the river to the state pen in Jackson for "violating" a probation sentence that sought to squelch Pinkney's free speech rights by imposing a gag order, according to noted civil rights attorney Hugh "Buck" Davis, who donated his services to Pinkney.
Davis told AFP during this reporter's July 8 "When Worlds Collide" radio show on the Republic Broadcasting Network, that this case is much more significant than many people realize.
"As far as I know he's the first preacher in America to get put into prison for quoting the Bible," Davis said.
The local media did not reprint Pinkney's "threatening" article in its entirety, nor any reasonably substantial excerpts, so there has not been a way for local citizens to objectively decide whether Butzbaugh was genuinely threatened; and even if the article could be construed as threatening, the question remains: Should judges be allowed to impose sweeping gag orders to prevent free speech, and cast people into prison when they speak out anyway? It's not as if Pinkney was a killer, rapist or other dangerous offender.
Judge Butzbaugh first imposed probation after a March 2007 jury trial in which Pinkney was deemed guilty of election fraud. Pinkney had launched a successful recall election in February 2005, removing Benton Harbor City Commission Glen Yarbrough from office by 54 votes after the commissioner had supported the Harbor Shores condos-golf development that some locals saw as an elite 500-acre land-grab that would annex some of the property that now makes up Jean Klock Park along Lake Michigan (a proposal for Harbor Shores to lease 22 acres of the park from the city was later floated). The father of Jean Klock named it after her when she died during childhood; the park was a gift to the city several decades ago. But since a few holes of a Jack Nicklaus "Signature" Golf Course that is part of Harbor Shores encroached upon this land in the city's only beachside park, Pinkey took issue with this and started a recall that succeeded. This, perhaps, was his real "crime." He was too effective.
"You've got free speech in this country until you start making a difference," Davis commented to AFP. "At first, he was just an 'eccentric' ... but later they saw him as a threat."
Yarbrough went to the county clerk and complained about being recalled. He was directed to the prosecutor's office. That office sued Benton Harbor's city clerk over the recall, and eventually another judge invalidated that election and set the stage for another one. And since, according to Davis, local authorities had been questioning and intimidating city residents in their effort to get some "dirt" on Pinkney to counter his rising effectiveness as a community leader and judicial system critic, the voter turnout at a second recall election was suppressed and Yarbrough was reinstated to his City Commission seat.
You would think his reinstatement would suffice, but the "machine" was not done with Pinkney. The testimony of a local prostitute in the March 2007 trial was considered good enough to "prove" that Pinkney had mishandled three absentee ballots during the first recall election. Although he was accused of skirting Michigan's questionable "gotcha" law --in which merely possessing absentee ballots that do not belong to a relative or resident of the same household is actually a felony -- Pinkney conceded that he gave three voters stamps and address labels with which to mail their ballots, but insisted he did not mishandle or deliver them to the local clerk himself.
The defense pointed out that if Pinkney planned on improperly handling or delivering other people's ballots, then why give those voters postage so they could mail in their own completed ballots?
Pinkney also was accused of buying votes when he paid some activists $5 each to hand out fliers before the first recall election. However, authorities claimed he paid people the same sum to sway them into voting in favor of recalling Yarbrough. However, Mancel Williams, a local resident, whom Yarbrough reportedly located himself, changed his story after first alleging that the vote-buying was true. However, Williams later alleged that Yarbrough paid him $10 to get him to say that Pinkney paid him $5 to directly influence votes. This is indeed odd in an age when local, state and federal officials routinely dole out funds from the public treasury, or give zoning breaks, regulatory favors and other perks to varied interests in exchange for votes and campaign contributions.
Pinkney was a well-known figure long before his election fraud trial. He was one of the most outspoken activists in Benton Harbor who worked to bring sanity back to town and seek justice in the wake of limited riots that erupted there in the summer of 2003. He often picketed the courthouse and took issue with the judicial system in general. He protested the police-state tactics imposed to stop the rioting. Virtual military-level forces were sent into this former industrial town along Lake Michigan [see AFP, # 1 & 2, January 2004, Inside the Rise & Fall of an American Town,], even though Pinkney insists the rioting was more limited than the conventional TV reporters, print journalists and their allies in law enforcement claimed it was.
This AFP reporter, having often reported on the various ways in which the North American Free Trade Agreement has seriously injured towns like Benton Harbor, grew up in the area. Benton Harbor was once a booming town, teeming with industry that supported a thrifty middle class -- the crucial ingredient for genuine economic prosperity. The current perpetual Congressman, wealthy Republican Fred Upton, a Whirlpool Corp. heir, has always supported NAFTA and other trade pacts that largely have brought disaster upon the working class in southwest and southeast Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and other areas across the nation that once thrived with the vital production jobs whose absence explains most of the serious economic downturn that has most people "on the ropes." The Congressman rarely if ever discusses the trade issues that are his Achilles heel, and local media give him a free pass on this and other crucial issues, portraying him as the "golden boy" of the area who can do no wrong.
Indeed, supplier Modern Plastics, among the few remaining local industries, was just closed by owners who directly blamed trade policy with China as the major culprit. "We could not pass on price increases to customers because they're struggling, too," said Robert Orlaske, executive vice president. "One big customer just pulled out and took its business to Mexico, China and Ohio. We're competing against China for every job. We can't compete with them, unfortunately."
Against this back drop of a once-thriving city that has been sharply declining for too long, save for some promising downtown businesses that are working hard to survive and prosper, AFP interviewed Pinkney in the fall of 2007. While concerned about Benton Harbor's status and future, he seemed sincere and credible as he explained the situation. He was under house arrest -- a prisoner in his own Union Street home -- at the time, due to his sentence from the 2007 trial. Amazingly, he was first tried in March 2006 but there was a hung jury. Yet officialdom kept him on a long leash until they could try him again a year later.
By December 2007 he was locked in the county jail for an anticipated one-year sentence as part of his original punishment. His wife, Dorothy, later told AFP that he perhaps would have been released for good by August 2008. However, the judicial system stepped in and tossed him in the dungeon, so to speak, making sure freedom would not come. His prison sentence in Jackson was reported as "3-10 years."
Dorothy is shaken that her husband has been taken away after believing that his former house arrest and his anticipated one year in the county jail were easily enough punishment for a flimsy election fraud conviction. "It was not about law at all," she told AFP. "My husband was a 'threat' and had too much influence on the public, so they had to confine him."
In her view: "They don't want him free."
Could any one of us end up in Pinkney's shoes someday if we decide to stop watching sports, drinking suds and fix our society instead? Time will tell.