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.