Retaliatory Election Fraud Prosecution

May 01, 2018

Rev. Edward Pinkney is a longtime community activist in Benton Harbor who has waged crusades against gentrification and what he regards as abuses of power by the Whirlpool Corporation and emergency managers assigned to the city.  His activities have earned him the animosity of the local power structure, and he has been the target of criminal prosecutions for acts alleged to have occurred while engaged in politics. 

Several years ago, for example, the ACLU of Michigan represented Rev. Pinkney when he was sent to prison for writing a newspaper editorial that criticized a local judge and condemned the criminal justice system as racist.  Most recently, Rev. Pinkney helped coordinate a campaign to recall the city’s mayor, whom Rev. Pinkney and others believed to be a stooge of the emergency manager and the other forces Rev. Pinkney has challenged through the years.  Although enough signatures were collected on recall petitions to put the issue on the ballot, the election was cancelled based on allegations that the dates next to the petitions’ signatures were illegally changed.  The finger was pointed at Rev. Pinkney, and in 2014, he was tried and convicted of election fraud by an all-white jury that was permitted to hear irrelevant and inflammatory evidence of Rev. Pinkney’s political activities. 

In 2015, the ACLU of Michigan filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Court of Appeals arguing that Rev. Pinkney’s conviction should be reversed, and in 2016, we participated in oral argument.  We argued that allowing the jury to hear irrelevant evidence about Rev. Pinkney’s controversial but legal political activism violated the First Amendment and his right to due process, and that Rev. Pinkney was charged with engaging in conduct that was never clearly defined by the law as constituting a felony offense. 

In 2016, the Court of Appeals affirmed Rev. Pinkney’s conviction, but the Michigan Supreme Court agreed to review the case and specifically ordered additional briefing on the two issues that we had advanced in the Court of Appeals.  In May 2018, the Michigan Supreme Court unanimously reversed Pinkney’s conviction on grounds that it was based on a statute that did not establish a substantive crime.  By that time Rev. Pinkney had returned home after serving 30 months in prison. 

(People v. Pinkney; ACLU Attorneys Mark Fancher, Dan Korobkin and Michael J. Steinberg; Cooperating Attorney Richard Friedman of U-M Law School.)

Read our Fall 2018 Legal Docket