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Take the deal, Judge Thornsbury

Hoppy Kercheval WVMetro News/Guest Commentary

September 18, 2013

When Mingo County Circuit Judge Michael Thornsbury appeared in federal court last month for his arraignment, he defiantly said he was “absolutely not guilty.”


The first stage of grief is denial.


The U.S. Attorney’s office produced a remarkably detailed indictment against Thornsbury, accusing him of abusing his position in multiple ways to harass and try to imprison the husband of his one-time paramour.


The indictment indicates that federal investigators have lined up a series of witnesses who have cooperated with authorities and are willing to testify against Thornsbury. Friendships and allegiances melt away when it comes to skin-saving time.


Thornsbury is likely thinking more clearly about his own skin, which is on the verge of being flayed by the competent and evidence-stocked U.S. Attorney’s Office.


The once-sovereign judge did make one wise decision; he hired Steve Jory as his attorney. The former federal prosecutor knows how the system works, meaning he’s well aware that when the feds get their teeth in you, it’s like being clamped by a pit bull.


Additionally, in a big case such as this, the initial charge only reveals a portion of the investigation, sometimes just enough to get the process started. It’s only after that when federal investigators sit down with the defendant and say, “and this is what else we have on you.”


The years on possible multiple convictions begin to add up—20 years, 30 years, life! I talked to one former federal prosecutor (not about this case) who told me that as reality settles in, the hubris disappears and the bargaining begins.


If Thornsbury is like the vast majority of those who’ve been caught up in allegations of corruption, and he is listening to good advice from a respected attorney, he’s cutting the best deal possible, but that means going to prison.


Depressing, yes, but it’s a natural part of grief.


Thornsbury once ruled the roost in Mingo County. He was the absolute power in a limited domain and he failed to heed the warning of Baron Acton about the inevitability of corruption in such circumstances.


It’s difficult to come down from that high and natural that Thornsbury would seek absolution. That, however, can only come after a long and costly defense against multiple charges. And juries have more sympathy for some poor sod who shoots his neighbor than a politician on trial.


No, judge, you really don’t want that. Cop the plea. Spill your guts. Do your 3-5 years and then carve out a niche in a helpful legal aid service somewhere. That will bring you to the final stage: acceptance.


It’s a long road from “absolutely not guilty,” but it’s the only path that makes sense, while at the same time giving corruption-ravaged Mingo County a chance to rebuild its justice system and its dignity.