By Rachel Dove
CHARLESTON - Although federal prosecutors acknowledged the assistance provided to them by former Mingo County Circuit Judge Michael Thornsbury that has helped bring down two county officials and is believed will greatly aid in future investigations into political corruption, the prison sentence he received Monday in U.S. District Court was still 50 months behind bars.
Ten months was shaved off of the 60-month sentence in exchange for Thornsbury turning over evidence against other elected officials within his own political faction.
Thornsbury had agreed to plead guilty to a charge of denying a defendant his rights to the counsel of his choice, in return for dismissing the indictment filed against him for allegedly violating the constitutional rights of his former secretary’s (mistress) husband. The former judge has made frequent trips to Charleston, according to his attorney Steve Jory, to speak with federal investigators concerning political corruption in Mingo County, where he was believed to be the leader of criminal activity within the political faction “Team Mingo.” To date, two members of that group, David Baisden (former county commissioner) and C. Michael Sparks (former prosecuting attorney) have pleaded guilty to charges against them that stemmed from the information provided by Thornsbury.
Federal prosecutors stated that Thornsbury had provided information into the corruption as late as last weekend, and say that it has played a significant role in obtaining indictments.
‘There is a significant possibility that further investigations will lead to further prosecution involving political corruption in Mingo County. This is very much an ongoing investigation.”
Thornsbury was charged in an information of denying a former defendant, George White, his right to the legal counsel of his choice. According to federal documents, the late sheriff of Mingo County, Eugene Crum, owed a $3,000 debt to White for signs and other campaign materials he had purchased during the 2012 election. White was arrested shortly after Crum took office for allegedly selling drugs. After his arrest, White hired local attorney Charles “Butch” West to represent him, and confided in his attorney that the sheriff had bought drugs from him while serving as magistrate.
West arranged for his client to speak with federal agents concerning these facts. When Crum became privy to these events, he went to the former judge and other officials and hatched a plan to keep White from talking. The defendant was told that if he fired West and hired an attorney of their choosing, he would be granted a lighter sentence. White stated during the sentencing hearing that he was told he would serve 30 days behind bars and six months on home confinement if he agreed to the offer. Although White did the bidding of the late sheriff, he was shocked to receive a prison sentence of 1-15 years.
They did not give me what they said they would give me,” said White. “My name has been drug through the mud over the past year in Mingo County. Everything I worked for all my life is gone. I fear for my safety and basically have been in hiding ever since I was released from jail. My business is ruined, I was verbally attacked by the widow of Eugene Crum - life as I knew before is gone and I don’t think I will ever be able to sleep the night through again.”
“It is no longer possible for me to live in the place that I love without fearing for my life,” he said.
When asked if he had anything he would like to say before sentence was pronounced, Thornsbury rose and stood before the bench and the judge, in the defendant’s position, where many a person had stood before him in court as he held their lives in his hands. This time around, however; he was pleading for his own future.
“No words that I could say here today would express the depths of my remorse,” Thornsbury said, in a tear-filled voice. “I will spend the remainder of my existence thinking about my mistake.”
“I have relived that 30-second conversation I had with Sheriff Crum over and over again, and I would give anything to go back and change my answer to his request. I would take it all back 100 times over if I could.”
“I failed the law … I allowed my judgment to be clouded by misguided loyalty to my friend, and personal ambition and pride.”
Thornsbury spoke of the untold embarrassment and humiliation he has brought on his family, and expressed his deepest apologies to them. He spoke of coming to grips with the fact that he would not be a part of his grandchildren’s lives any longer on a daily basis, and how hard this ordeal had been on them. He commented about losing his wife of 37 years to divorce after he was charged, of losing his income, his law license, pension and health insurance. He told U.S. District Judge Thomas E. Johnston that he does not go outside his residence unless it’s absolutely necessary, and has imposed a self-inflicted prison upon himself.
The former judge gave an apology to White, although he did not look at the victim who was present in the courtroom, acknowledging that he failed to protect his constitutional rights.
“My self-punishment will stand forever,” Thornsbury said. “I pray that you will consider my whole life today when pronouncing my sentence, not just a snapshot in time.”
Next, it was Assistant Proscutor Steve Ruby’s turn to speak, and he did not spare the former judge any embarrassment.
“I can’t emphasize enough the severity of this crime … this was the only seated judge in Mingo County. He was not just a political official or a leader of criminal activity,” Ruby said. “The proper defense in Mr. White’s case may have been able to clear his name and free him, but instead, he was silenced and stripped of his right to the counsel of his choice.
“Thornsbury sat on the bench - in a judge’s robe - flanked by an American flag, and handed down the sentence he chose and denied this defendant his due process of law,” said the U.S. Assistant Prosecutor.
“Whether he committed the crime or not, we will never know because due process of law was not allowed; he was not treated fairly. Mr. White has lost all faith in the judicial system and I, for one, can’t blame him. Not only has he lost faith, but residents of Mingo County have as well. It’s going to take a lot of time and hard work to repair this damage, and there’s a chance it never will be right again.
“I’ve never heard of a judge denying a defendant his choice of legal counsel, and if I hadn’t been a part of this investigation and seen this with my own eyes, I probably still wouldn’t believe it.
“What happened in this case is profoundly demoralizing to the judicial system, and it’s long past the time for this type of behavior to stop.”
Ruby commented on the letters that had been written by Thornsbury’s supporters that were entered on behalf of the defendant, and said that, although it is not a practice of the court to solicit opinions from the public, he feels confident that the hundreds of people he had heard from that were pleased Thornsbury was being held accountable for his actions would greatly outnumber those who favored his freedom.
“These support letters do not express the opinions of the majority of Mingo Countians. I believe that, if asked, we would see that it is not the general view of those who live there.”
Judge Thomas Johnston addressed Thornsbury before pronouncing his sentence, and began by saying that the expectations of equal justice for all was not honored. White was denied his constitutional rights.
“You and your cronies wrenched that away from Mr. White as a favor to Sheriff Crum,” said the judge. “You turned justice in Mingo County into something completely unrecognizable.
“This is not the only time you violated rights,” said Johnston. “You set your sights on your secretary and wanted her for yourself. You rigged the entire system, all the way to the grand jury foreman, to do him (her husband) in. He had nowhere to go for help, no one to turn to.
“This is something one would see in the regime of a Third World dictatorship, not in America.”
Johnston told Thornsbury that he was not the first elected official from Mingo County to stand before him, and felt that a substantial sentence must be imposed to send a clear message that crimes such as these would never be tolerated, and would never go unpunished.
Besides the 50 months in prison, Thornsbury also received a $6,000 fine and three years supervised probation upon his release.