by Abayomi Azikiwe
St. Joseph, Michigan – Another post-conviction motions hearing took place on April 14 in St. Joseph, Michigan, involving the conviction by an all-white jury late last year of a leading civil rights activist, Rev. Edward Pinkney. People traveled from throughout the state of Michigan and across the United States to support the Berrien County leader who many feel has been denied justice by a corporate-controlled racist system in the southwest region of the state.
Rev. Pinkney, the leader of the Black Autonomy Network Community Organization (BANCO), was present in the courtroom in St. Joseph, Michigan, the seat of Berrien County. Defense Attorney Tat Parish requested that the handcuffs be taken off of Pinkney, but to no avail.
Judge Sterling Schrock, who continues to preside over the case where the BANCO leader was convicted on five felony counts for forgery involving the purported changing of dates on recall petitions designed to remove Benton Harbor Mayor James Hightower, denied the request saying it was up to the discretion of the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC). No MDOC officials appeared to have been in the courtroom, since Pinkney was transported to the Berrien County jail the night before from Coldwater, where he is being held on a sentence of 30-120 months.
There were two motions heard before Judge Schrock resulting in decisions that clearly violate the civil rights of Pinkney, a long-time organizer in the county. The first of the egregious decisions stemmed from a prosecution motion requesting restitution to Mayor Hightower due to purported harm done to him by Pinkney during the recall campaign of 2014.
The judge ordered that Pinkney pay restitution to Benton Harbor Mayor James Hightower, who is up for re-election this year, in the amount of $1,736.17, saying the politician suffered economic and psychological damage due to the recall campaign aimed at removing him from office in 2014. Hightower did not even bother to appear in court; the prosecutor, Michael Sepic, who submitted the motion, argued on his behalf.
Human Resources Director Susan Leach of Lakeland Hospital, where Hightower is employed in addition to his mayoral post, was subpoenaed to testify by the defense. She reported that Hightower is a salaried employee and did not lose any pay during the course of the recall campaign and the trial of Pinkney, where he testified. Nonetheless, the court ruled against Pinkney.
Motion for a new trial denied
The other motion presented by the defense requested a new trial based on the connections which existed between juror Gail Freehland of neighboring Three Oaks and the family of Berrien County Clerk Sharon Tyler, who was a key witness in the prosecution of Pinkney. Relationships were clearly established through a series of witnesses called by the defense.
The former juror, Ms. Freehland, when called to testify, said she did not have any social relationships with the Berrien County officials in question. Other witnesses called by the defense not only substantiated a connection but longtime friendships between these elements in the county.
Tyler’s partner, Danny Gross, the former president of Three Oaks village, was also subpoenaed to testify by the defense. He did admit that he had known Freehland “all her life” but said he was not aware if the former juror was acquainted with his partner, Berrien County Clerk Sharon Tyler.
Gross owns a restaurant in the county and stated that Freehland had been in his business. The former Three Oaks leader acknowledged that his daughters were around the same age as Freehland and that they knew each other.
Later Gross’ daughter Jody was called to testify and stated that she has “known Freehland for 30 years.” She mentioned during her testimony that she sees Freehland at least once or twice a year and that they were friends on Facebook.
Later Gail Gross, another daughter of Danny, testified that she and Freehland “attended the same school system,” although Freehland is younger. When asked by defense lawyer Parish if the two were friends, Gross said she considered her a friend.
Prosecutor Sepic said the defense arguments seeking to draw connections and social relationships between these personalities involved in the trial of Pinkney were “preposterous.” Later he concluded that no connections were established.
Parish said for the defense that “there is every reason to suggest connections” and this was not disclosed during the jury screening process known as voir dire.
Consequently, Judge Schrock agreed with Sepic. He denied the motion for a new trial and re-emphasized that Pinkney did not qualify for bond pending the outcome of his appeal which is being filed in an attempt to overturn his convictions on the felony charges.
During the course of the trial in 2014, no witnesses were brought forward by the prosecution who testified that they saw or believed that Pinkney changed the dates on five signatures on the recall petitions. Both the prosecution and the judge repeatedly stated that the evidence against Pinkney was “circumstantial,” yet no circumstantial evidence was ever presented.
Pinkney was then ushered out of the courtroom and transported back to state prison in Coldwater. His next step will be to bring the case before the appeals court, where many believe he has a good chance of prevailing.
Demonstration held outside court house
After the hearing ended, dozens of people remained behind to carry out a demonstration outside the Berrien County Court. Activists from Chicago, Flint, Detroit, Oak Park and other areas spoke out against what they saw as a travesty of justice.
Berrien County is dominated by the Whirlpool Corp., a multi-billion dollar firm. Pinkney and BANCO are staunch critics of the company, saying that it is behind the prosecution and imprisonment.
A demonstration against Whirlpool products sold at Lowe’s department store in Southfield, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit, was held on April 24. Activists are attempting to expose the role of corporations in the politics of Berrien County and southwest Michigan.
Abayomi Azikiwe, editor of Pan-African News Wire, where this story first appeared, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Pan-African News Wire, the world’s only international daily pan-African news source, is designed to foster intelligent discussion on the affairs of African people throughout the continent and the world.