On Monday, a jury found Pinkney guilty on five felony counts of alleged election law violation after a week-long trial. The county prosecutor, Mike Sepic, accused Pinkney of changing dates next to signatures on a petition drive seeking to recall Benton Harbor’s mayor, James Hightower.
The jury’s decision came despite the absence of any direct evidence that Pinkney committed a crime. Numerous witnesses who gathered petition signatures testified that some signers changed dates next to their own names. Three witnesses testified that they saw someone other than Pinkney changing dates on the petitions after signatures were gathered. Mark Goff, a forensic document examiner with the Michigan State Police, testified that changes to the petitions were made in different ink, but he could not determine when the changes were made, by whom, or whether they were changed by the signers themselves. No witness testimony nor physical evidence supported the charges that Pinkney changed any dates. Pinkney denies all charges.
“We were very surprised by the verdict,” said attorney Tat Parish who represented Pinkney at the trial. “I believe there was simply no evidence whatsoever that he did the deed. The problem, of course, is that the prosecution was allowed to argue that it was ‘circumstantial’ evidence. Circumstantial evidence, as close as I can tell, is just a suspicion. There will be an appeal.”
Sentencing is set for December 15. In an unrelated case, a Michigan Court of Appeals ruled on Friday that election fraud charges are misdemeanors, not felonies. In that case, Brandon Hall, 25, confessed to election fraud and faces up to a $500 fine and up to 93 days in jail for 10 counts of misdemeanor election forgery. In contrast, Pinkney could potentially be sentenced to 25 years in prison by Judge Sterling Schrock, who instructed the jury on Friday that “circumstantial evidence can be almost the same as direct evidence.” Hall is white and Pinkney is African-American. Although Benton Harbor is 96% African-American, no African-Americans served on the jury for Pinkney’s trial.
Pinkney and other members of the Benton Harbor community group, BANCO (Black Autonomy Network Community Organization), have lead multiple petition drives to recall local officials as one strategy of their campaign to promote democracy, civil rights, and economic justice in the county. Whirlpool Corp. is headquartered in Benton Harbor, which has among the highest unemployment and poverty rates in the state. Mayor Hightower’s opposition to a city income tax that would have affected Whirlpool resulted in the community’s effort to recall him.
BANCO and Pinkney have protested the four emergency managers, appointed by the governor under Michigan’s controversial Emergency Manager Law, currently operating the city instead of democratically-elected officials. BANCO was also among the most vocal opponents of a golf course and luxury development that appropriated lakeshore land formerly designated as a Benton Harbor city park.
Pinkney believes his human rights activism has made him a target of political persecution by Whirlpool and local governments. In just one recent example, his arrest warrant for non-violent charges was served by a SWAT team that surrounded his home at gunpoint. Such tactics, he says, are designed to intimidate all Benton Harbor residents who speak up against Whirlpool and local officials. Prosecutor Sepic questioned numerous witnesses at the trial about their membership and involvement in BANCO, as if community activism itself were on trial. Judge Schrock permitted the line of questioning despite objections by the defense.
In a statement released Tuesday, Pinkney said, “They are saying they don’t need evidence to send someone to prison. Now everybody in Benton Harbor is in jeopardy. We have to say enough is enough. Here, Whirlpool controls not only Benton Harbor and the residents, but also the court system itself. They will do anything to crush you if you stand up to them. That’s why it’s so important to fight this.”