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Ethics in Criminal Justice

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January 29, 2017


Ethics in Criminal Justice: Part One

Former West Virginia Circuit Judge, Michael Thorsnbury, was actively engaged in

multiple criminal conspiracies wherein he willfully violated the constitutional rights of his

victim, White (Supreme Court, 2013). Thornsbury was charged with two “…felony violations of

Title 18, United States Code, Section 241: conspiracy to violate a person’s civil rights” (Supreme

Court, 2013, p. 10). Thornsbury is serving his sentence in a federal prison located in Florida;

however, he is scheduled for release in March of 2017. This paper is written to provide an

account of the circumstances related to criminal injustice while examining the professional and

ethical canons to which judges are held. Cultural issues, an historical context, the absence of

moral courage, and the political strife of this case are also discussed to provide a comprehensive

depiction of the case against former Judge, Michael Thornsbury.

Part Two

White’s wife served as a secretary for Thornsbury at the time in which she and the judge

were engaged in an extramarital affair. In efforts to persuade his secretary to leave her husband,

Thornsbury insisted that White was involved in unlawful drug activities. When his secretary

terminated her relationship with Thornsbury, the judge chose to abuse the power vested in him

by conspiring with the West Virginia State Police to frame White by planting illegal substances

on White’s truck, in addition to arresting White for committing the crime of theft, a crime for

which White was innocent. Thornsbury also abused his authority by coercing a state grand jury

for the purpose of oppressing White and his family members. Following a physical assault of

White, Thornsbury arranged for White to receive a significantly harsher sentence than that of the

perpetrator who initiated the assault (Supreme Court, 2013).


Moreover, in conspiring with Mingo County Commissioner David Baisden and Michael

Sparks, who served as the Mingo County Prosecutor, Thornsbury arranged to protect his

comrade, Sheriff Eugene Crum, from a federal investigation related to campaign law and drug

violations (Watson, 2015). Sheriff Crum owed White thousands of dollars for making election

campaign signs; therefore, Thornsbury schemed to have a police informant buy drugs from

White in order to have White charged and arrested. “White said Thornsbury promised that he

would only spend one month in jail and be placed on home confinement if he agreed to hire the

attorney the conspirators wanted” (Watson, 2015, n.p.). As such, White was coerced to fire his

defense attorney, after which point he received a 15-year prison sentence of which he served

eight months. The former judge did plead guilty to the charges against him and was sentenced to

serve 50 months in federal prison with an accompanying fine of $6,000 on June 9, 2014.

The ethical issues involved in this case are centered on violations of Canons one, two,

three and four that clearly stipulate the expectations to which judges are held on a professional

and ethical level. Canon one states that judges are commissioned to uphold and observe high

standards of conduct and integrity. Canon two indicates that, in all activities, judges must avoid

impropriety and earn the confidence of the public by means of impartiality. Moreover, Canon

two also reveals that judges are prohibited from allowing relationships of any sort from affecting

their judgment or conduct. Canon three is focused on remaining loyal to the law in the absence

of prejudice or bias by exercising diligence and impartiality. Canon three also prohibits ex parte

communication. Canon four mandates that judges must act in a professional capacity at all times

to reduce the potential of conflict regarding obligations, and this cannon stipulates that judges

must never demean their office. Judge Thornsbury was found to have violated every canon.

Part Three

The occupational culture relevant to this issue is characterized by a clear mandate to

perform judiciary duties within the confines of established laws while respecting and preserving

the integrity of the canons to which individuals holding judiciary authority are held and

measured. The culture of this particular profession carries steep expectations to which judges are

compelled to adhere at all times. “Although judges are subject to the same human frailty as all

other members of society, they must expect their conduct to be the subject of constant public

scrutiny” (Bell, 2009, p. 619). It is crucial to note that judicial misconduct in the United States

far exceeds the quantity of judicial disciplinary proceedings. As such, it is entirely plausible to

contend that judges may gain a false sense of existing in a state that is above the law.

From an historical context, it is compelling to note that the sentencing judge, Judge

Thomas E. Johnston, drew a clear parallel between the actions of Thornsbury and those of a

third-world dictator. According to Johnston, Thornsbury played a significant role in enacting a

level of corruption in a system that is intended to prevent the United States from embodying that

sort of country. “Some studies have tracked the historical development of judicial integrity

institutions and others have catalogued cases of judicial corruption” (Pahis, 2009, p. 1903). In

examining the history of judicial bribery from 1967 through 2000, 38 judges at the federal and

state levels were removed from office or convicted for bribery charges. Moreover, researchers

have found that more than one million dollars related to bribery are paid into the judicial system

per year.

There was no evidence of moral courage related to this criminal injustice. Thornsbury

was compelled to plead guilty as a product of insurmountable evidence coupled with the

information provided by his victim, White. It is quite probable that the political climate

characteristic this particular situation, wherein a judge was reduced to the status of a defendant,

caused a great deal of speculation and concern regarding his conviction. Judge Johnston

convicted Thornsbury when a plea of ‘guilty’ was entered, thereby allowing Johnston to convict

a fellow judge while admonishing his actions. Justice was served; however, issues of criminal

injustice and corruption among judges remain an issue of great concern.



Bell, E. (2009). Judicial misconduct. Commonwealth Law Bulletin, 35(4), 619-647.


Pahis, S. (2009). Corruption in our courts : What it looks like and where it is hidden. Yale

Law Journal, 118(8), 1900-1943.

Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia. (2013, August 15). Report of judicial disciplinary

counsel. Retrieved from http://www.courtswv.gov/public-resources/press/releases/2013-


Watson, J. (2015, September 25). Former West Virginia judge pleads guilty, sentenced.

Retrieved from https://www.prisonlegalnews.org/news/2015/sep/25/former-west-