MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) — Legal experts say cases that a West Virginia grand jury heard in 2009 could be tainted by allegations that a suspended judge hand-picked a friend to serve as foreman and help him frame a romantic rival for crimes the man didn’t commit.
The fact that the foreman was a business associate of Mingo County Circuit Judge Michael Thornsbury and a public officeholder barred by state law from serving on the grand jury virtually guarantees that lawyers across southern West Virginia are considering a flood of challenges, said Harry Deitzler, president of the West Virginia State Bar.
It wasn’t immediately clear how many cases could be affected.
“If somebody goes outside the process that’s prescribed by law for fairness to all, any decision or any verdict may be subject to challenge,” said Deitzler, who’s also former president of the West Virginia Prosecuting Attorneys Association. “That doesn’t mean the challenge will be upheld, and that doesn’t necessarily mean every indictment is invalid. That will be up to the Supreme Court to decide.”
Public perception is critical regardless of how the federal conspiracy charges against Thornsbury are resolved.
“It’s important that the system be fair,” Deitzler said, “but it’s also important that the system appear to be fair.”
Federal prosecutors indicted Thornsbury on two conspiracy counts Thursday, just hours after indicting County Commissioner Dave Baisden on unrelated extortion charges. The state Supreme Court suspended Thornsbury and his law license that evening, and a replacement judge took over his caseload Friday.
Thornsbury, 57, is free on bond and set to appear in court Wednesday. His attorney has declined comment.
The indictment says Thornsbury tried between 2008 and 2012 to frame Robert Woodruff for crimes including drug possession, larceny and assault. The married judge had been having an affair with his secretary — Woodruff’s wife, Kim — and he tried to eliminate the competition after she tried to break things off, it says.
The schemes involved a state trooper, the grand jury foreman and another man, the indictment says, but none of them panned out. Prosecutors say they won’t file charges against any of those people, but they are continuing to investigate corruption in the southern coalfields community where Thornsbury had been the only judge since 1997.
One of the alleged conspirators in Thornsbury’s scheme was Mingo County’s emergency services director, Jarrod Fletcher, a friend and partner in a real estate venture called Williamson Renaissance Development Inc.
The indictment says Fletcher was prohibited by West Virginia law from serving on a grand jury because he’s considered an officeholder, but that Thornsbury appointed him on Jan. 20, 2009. He was excused that September.
In between, the indictment says, Thornsbury crafted subpoenas aimed at gathering private information about Robert Woodruff, who worked for a local coal mining-related company, and had Fletcher issue them, ostensibly through the grand jury. The scheme was exposed when a business refused to cooperate and turn over its records.
Steven Canterbury, administrative director for the state Supreme Court of Appeals, says he has no doubt lawyers are reviewing any cases that came before the grand jury when Fletcher was at the helm.
“I’m sure they are — because they have a duty to do so,” he said. “And if somebody is sitting in prison, I guarantee you that person is looking into it.”
The formal legal challenges may not come until the criminal case against Thornsbury is resolved, Canterbury said, but there’s no guarantee lawyers will wait to either appeal a conviction or petition the high court for an investigation.
The justices will have to decide those matters as they arise, he said.
Canterbury filed a complaint with a judicial disciplinary body within a half hour of the indictment, and within hours, the justices had approved a recommendation to suspend Thornsbury without pay. They named two well-respected judges in Williamson to handle Thornsbury’s case load.
“You can gauge their concern and their frustration by the rapidity and the results,” Canterbury said. “I think that shows their alarm and their concern and their desire to get things straight in that court as soon as possible.”
Canterbury said they appointed two “deans of the court,” Senior Status Judge John Cummings of Cabell County for the daily proceedings and Senior Status Supreme Court Justice Thomas McHugh for cases involving abuse and neglect, domestic violence, juveniles and other emergency issues.
Canterbury said Chief Justice Brent Benjamin “was very clear about making sure if you’ve got some bleeding, you do your best to bandage it and heal it.”
“I’m not going to pretend it’s not a black eye, but the body of the court — the whole court system — is intact and it’s fine.”
Thornsbury’s alleged actions appear to have been driven “by an extremely personal agenda,” Canterbury said, adding that for anyone to conclude that it is indicative of widespread misconduct “is nonsense.”