THE NOTORIOUS BITING JUDGE

Of Pleasants County  West Virginia

 

Summary:  You may remember the controversy about 5 years ago surrounding boxer ‘Iron’ Mike Tyson after he bit the ear of Evander Holyfield during a match.   At about the same time an even more bizarre incident was unfolding in the County courthouse of rural Pleasants County West Virginia.  On this particular day, the defendant in a minor criminal case, unhappy with a ruling of the Court, called the judge a name as the defendant was being led out of the courtroom to be returned to jail.  The judge, who on most occasions had seemed a pretty reasonable fellow must have been having a bad day that day.   He ordered the defendant brought back before the bench and then stepped down and by all accounts initiated a brawl with the defendant which ended with the judge biting off a piece of the defendant’s nose, spitting it out onto the courtroom floor and then ordering the defendant sent for medical attention. By the time the dust had settled on this bizarre incident, the State Judicial Ethics Committee,  the FBI, and numerous national news agencies had been involved.   The judge ended up serving a token jail sentence, and being removed (most likely forever) from the bench.   To the best of my knowledge, Joseph Troisi still maintains a successful law practice in St. Mary’s WV.   The following newspaper excerpts are presented in their entirety,  lest you doubt my version of this bizarre story:

 

Ritchie Gazette  Vol 123  number 44

200 E Main StHarrisvilleWV  26362

3 July1997

 

Bizarre Biting Incident

Draws National Attention

© by Kent R. Spellman

In a bizarre incident that has made national news, Third Circuit Court Judge Joseph Troisi left the bench in the Pleasants County courtroom last Thursday morning, June 26th, while court was in session, and reportedly assaulted a defendant by biting him on the nose.  The alleged bite drew blood and removed a small piece of flesh from the tip of the defendant's nose, which the judge then spat onto the courtroom floor.  The incident occurred while a state trooper, a sheriff's deputy, the prosecuting attorney and several lawyers and bystanders watched in shocked disbelief as the incident unfolded.

  The defendant, William Witten, 29, of Belmont, WV, had been denied a request to reduce his post conviction appeal bond following his conviction and sentencing upon two felony counts of breaking and entering.  Witten uttered a derogatory remark about the judge to State Trooper Terry Nichols as he was being led from the courtroom following the hearing.  Troisi apparently overheard the remark and provoked the confrontation.  According to state police spokesman Cpt. Terry Snodgrass, the onlookers — including the trooper — were too shocked to respond in time to stop the incident.

  No action was taken against the judge following the attack, and witnesses stated that he calmly resumed court while the defendant was led bleeding from the courtroom. Police took Witten to get medical treatment for the injury,  and then returned him to the Pleasants County Jail.  Agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the state police and the Judicial Investigation Commission of the West Virginia Supreme Court are all conducting separate investigations of the incident.

  Troisi reportedly could face a variety of charges stemming from the incident, including federal charges for violating the defendant's civil rights; state misdemeanor charges of assault and battery and a felony charge of malicious assault; administrative proceedings through the judicial investigation commission; and a civil suit for damages.  Judge Troisi, when reached by telephone at his home, declined to comment on the incident, or the charges he faces. "All I can say is that it continues to be inappropriate for me to respond at this time."  Troisi did say that, "I have faith in myself and faith in the system. We will both survive."

  In a special interview with the Ritchie Gazette, Witten said he has "...full intentions of pursuing criminal and civil charges" against Troisi, including punitive damages.  "If I had bitten the judge on the nose, they would have put me away for the rest of my life," said Witten, who pointed out that the judge was not arrested for assaulting him.

  According to Whitten, he called the judge  a “F____ A___” as he was being led from the Pleasants County courtroom.  When the judge overheard his remark, Troisi stood and called Witten back to the bench yelling,  "Bring Mr. Witten back here now!"  in a loud voice, pointing to the area in front of the bench, and ordered him to stand there.  Witten assumed he was about to be found in contempt of court.  Instead, Troisi walked off the bench, unzipped his robe and angrily dropped it on the courtroom floor. According to witnesses, the judge then taunted WittenWitten said the judge "...got in my face and backed me up against the bench." Troisi continued yelling at Witten, who said he stuffed his hands in his pockets and told the judge, "You know I cannot touch you."  Witten said Troisi then told him,  "When you get out of the penitentiary, you look me up." Witten responded, "I'll make a point of it,  Your Honor."  Troisi then  "... butted me two or three times with his chest, forcing me against the bench," Witten stated.  "I believe he was trying to provoke me into hitting him," said Witten. Troisi, he said, then snapped at him twice with his teeth.  "I could hear his teeth clicking together," Witten said. "They happened real fast.  One of them caught my nose."  As Witten stood with blood running down his face, he heard the  trooper say, "Come on. Bill," and  start to lead him away.  Witten said the judge then told him to, "Do something about your nose," and repeated those words.  He said Troisi then spat a piece of  flesh from his mouth onto the  courtroom floor. He spat again, put on his robe and resumed the bench.  On the bench, the judge spat yet a third time, and then called for the next case.

   Troisi — who was elected in 1992 to an eight-year term as judge of the Third Judicial Circuit serving Ritchie, Pleasants and Doddridge Counties — had been a rising star among West Virginia circuit judges. He had been appointed by the state supreme court to handle a number of high-profile cases, including the embezzlement trial of Parkersburg Mayor Gene Knotts and the trial of former Kanawha County Circuit Judge John Hey for sexual harassment.  In another unusual twist, Troisi is also a member of the Judicial Investigation Commission, the panel which normally investigates charges of judicial misconduct.  Supreme Court Administrator Ted Philyaw stated that, because Troisi is a member of that commission, "... the court has directed this investigation be handled by special counsel Sherry Goodman, Chief Lawyer Disciplinary Counsel for the West Virginia State Bar."  Goodman has confirmed that she is handling the investigation. She said that she " . . . will report her findings to the supreme court." 

  Troisi has continued to hold court and has made no mention of either resigning or temporarily removing himself from the bench pending the outcome of the investigations.  Harrisville attorney Steven Jones — who represented William Witten at the bond hearing — substantiates Witten's account of the incident.  Jones said, however, that from where he stood, he could only see   Troisi's head lunge at the defendant, and could not see the actual   bite.  Jones has declined to represent Witten in any criminal or civil case against the judge, due to his own involvement as a potential witness.

  Charleston lawyer Michael Cline, who has been consulting with the Witten family concerning the incident, stated "I have advised the family that Witten should not talk to any media at this time. This case should not be tried in the media." 

  Judge Troisi is respected as a jurist, but is known for his moody and frequently angry behavior in court. Several incidents of his erratic behavior have been rumored, but none that approach the weird and unaccountable nature of this event.  Jones said he has never seen any thing like this in his experience as an assistant prosecutor, or as a private attorney.  "I hope that the members of the bar and the supreme court will see fit to do something," he said.  Jones pointed out that judges are allowed to carry unlicensed hand guns into court with them. "I worry about what might have happened if he had had a gun with him at the time." 

    

        Judge Joeseph Troisi

 

   Pleasants County Prosecuting Attorney Tim Sweeney has asked that he be recused from prosecuting any cases that result from the incident.  Sweeney said that he is talking to investigators and cannot comment on the incident to the media.  When asked what would have happened if Witten had bitten the judge's nose instead of vice versa, he responded, "That's an interesting question, but it's hypothetical. I suppose he would have been arrested, but because it's hypothetical, I can't really say." Troisi was Sweeney's law partner and the assistant prosecuting attorney prior to his election as judge.

    The events of last Thursday have attracted notoriety and were reported in several major media markets around the country. The incident was told on the "Paul Harvey News" radio broadcast last Friday.  According to Captain Terry Snodgrass, who is handling public relations for the state police in this matter, he has received inquiries about the case from the National  Enquirer, 20/20, a right-wing magazine based in Washington, D.C., a Memphis, TN, radio station and newspapers from throughout the eastern United States.

    "We investigate assaults every day," said Snodgrass. "It's unfortunate that because this case involves a judge in his courtroom, it has received so much attention.  It's bad publicity for West Virginia.  "Snodgrass admitted, "I've never seen anything like it."  When asked if it would have been appropriate for Judge Troisi to have been arrested for battery at the time of the incident, Snodgrass responded, "I don't think so. The fact that an arrest was not made immediately has no bearing on whether an arrest will be made. We know where to find Judge Troisi if we need him."

 

Ritchie Gazette Vol124 Number 10

200 E Main Street   Harrisville, WV  26362

30 October 1997

 

Troisi Resigns in Plea Bargain

Judge still faces ethics, civil rights charges

 

    Third Circuit Judge Joseph Troisi avoided indictment on Thursday, Oct. 23rd, by pleading no contest to a misdemeanor battery charge and resigning from the bench. Troisi also agreed to receive "psychological or psychiatric counseling and treatment for impulse and anger control," according to the terms of the plea agreement reached late Wednesday night between Troisi's attorney Harry Deitzler and Special Prosecutor William Forbes.  Forbes said he will recommend a sentence of probation for Troisi.  

    Sentencing is scheduled for Nov.26th in Pleasants County   The plea agreement has no effect on a federal charge of violating William "Bill" Witten's civil rights by biting him on the nose on June 26th. Troisi will be arraigned on that charge at 11:15 a.m. on Friday,  Oct.31st in Elkins.  Nor does the agreement end Troisi's ethics problems. A  hearing before the Judicial Review Board is scheduled for 9:00 a.m. on Monday,Nov.3rd.   According to Chief Lawyer Disciplinary Counsel Sherri Goodman,  Troisi can no longer be disciplined as a judge, since he resigned, but can still be disciplined as a lawyer.  Possible discipline could include the loss of his law license.  Deitzler said that Troisi will offer to pay the cost of the ethics proceedings against him and will put his law license on inactive status in an effort to resolve the ethics charges. 

     Special Prosecutor William Forbes said Troisi has paid a heavy price. "Let's face it," Forbes said following the plea agreement, "99% of all misdemeanor batteries result in a $50 fine. Judge Troisi has paid a hell of a lot more than that."  Forbes said he did not think Troisi should lose his law license. "If they took the license away from every lawyer who committed a misdemeanor," he said, "none of us would have a license."  Disciplinary Counsel Goodman said Troisi's case is not that simple  "We're not talking about a traffic violation — this misdemeanor is a reflectfon on his ability to function properly in a court of law."  Goodman said she will present the Judicial Review Board with a proposed settlement to the ethics charges. She would not comment on whether her proposed settlement was the same as the one referred to by Deitzler. "It would be inappropriate for me to float any proposal in the press prior to presenting it to the review board. It will be up to the Review Board to deliberate and decide if it is acceptable," she said.  The plea settlement proceedings last Thursday took place before Special Judge Arthur Recht while a Special Grand Jury waited in a separate room.  Judge Recht reminded Troisi that by agreeing to the plea settlement he was "giving up a number of valuable constitutional rights, including the right to trial by jury."  Recht also said that a no contest plea "can be treated the same as a guilty plea in terms of punishment." As such, Troisi could face a jail sentence of up to 12 months, a fine of up to $500, or both.  Both Deitzler and Forbes expect Judge Recht to accept the prosecution's recommendation of a sentence of probation.  Forbes told the court, "The state is not giving up a darn thing with this nolo contendere plea agreement. You can call a horse a cow, but everyone knows it is still a horse." 

    Recht said he found the terms of the agreement to be "fair, just, and equitable.  Obviously, if I did not believe the interests of justice were served here, I would not have approved this agreement. This is not a pleasant day for anyone."

    Troisi's formal letter of resignation was hand-delivered to Governor Cecil Underwood later that day.  Troisi's attorney, Harry Deitzler, continued to defend his client's character after the hearing. "Joe has never said that it was right, what he did. Regardless of what asmall minority of lawyers have apparently said, this act was out of character for him."  Goodman disagreed. "My report outlining Judge Troisi's misconduct was not based on a small minority of lawyers. It was based on statements by lawyers from five counties, as well as court personnel, litigants, courthouse employees, and bystanders,” she said.  “It angers me that the judge continues to dismiss out of hand the seriousness of his conduct.  If he doesn’t see himself as having a problem other than that one incident (the Witten nose biting) then I question whether he will benefit from the required counseling."

    Troisi also faces the possibility of a civil suit. Bill Witten's attorney, Jonathan Turak, said the "chances are good — more likely than not we will be filing suit on Mr. Witten's behalf."  Turak said he had no definite timeline for filing the suit.  "There's no point in piling on," he said. "People might begin to feel sorry for the guy."   Turak said Troisi’s indictment on a civil rights charge probably made Witten’s case stronger. Troisi lost a $80,000 a year salary and a generous benefits package when he resigned.  He also faces extensive legal expenses and may be held accountable for the costs of his ethics investigation.  On Thursday morning prior to his resignation, Troisi went to a local bank to obtain a second mortgage  on his home.   "He probably doesn't feel too well," Deitzler said.  Gov, Cecil Underwood announced Tuesday, Oct. 28th, that his office will begin accepting applications from people seeking appointment to Troisi's seat as judge of the Third Circuit.  According to Delegate Otis Leggett, who represents Pleasants and Ritchie counties, several names have been mentioned, including David Hanlon of Ritchie County, Carl Bryant of Pleasants County, and Robert Holland of  Doddridge County, who lost the 1992 election that brought Troisi to the bench.

 

 

Ritchie Gazette  Vol 124  Number 11

200 E. Main St  Harrisville, WV  26362

 

Troisi Allowed to

Keep Law License

Judicial Hearing Board Agreement Includes

Censure, Payment of Investigation Costs

 

    Former Third Circuit Judge Joseph Troisi will be allowed to keep his law license under the terms of an agreement that was approved by the Judicial Hearing Board on Monday, Nov.3rd in Charleston.  Troisi appeared before the board with his attorneys, Harry Dietzler and Cynthia Gustke, to agree to terms that were negotiated as part of his plea of no contest to a misdemeanor battery charge. The judge faced indictment on Oct. 23rd after an incident in which he bit the nose of a defendant in the Pleasants County courtroom.

    The agreement was presented to the Hearing Board by Lawyer Disciplinary Counsel Steven J. Knopp, who was substituting for Chief Counsel Sherri Goodman. Ms. Goodman was hospitalized with an undisclosed illness the evening before the hearing-  Under the terms of the agreement, Troisi will accept a censure from the Supreme Court of Appeals and will agree to pay more than $4,600 for the costs of the judicial board investigation and proceedings.  In addition, the former judge agreed not to seek back pay for the period of time he was suspended and to undergo counseling for impulse and anger control.  Troisi will voluntarily put his law license on either "inactive status" or "active but not practicing status" with the WV State Bar and will formulate, with the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, a plan of supervision of his law practice for a period of one year.   Troisi's attorney, Harry Dietzler, said that maintaining his law license "is critical to his survival."  The Judicial Hearing Board accepted the agreement and recommended it to the Supreme Court,  which will have final say in the matter.  The agreement did not deal with the issue of whether Troisi could ever be a candidate for circuit judge in the future.  Troisi could still face a federal civil rights charge, although U. S. Attorney Paul T. Camilletti was granted an  indefinite continuance while the Justice 'Department considers whether to pursue the charge.  An arraignment on the charge had been scheduled for 11:30 a.m. last Friday. Troisi was indicted on one civil rights violation charge on Oct. 9th by a Clarksburg Grand Jury.  The former judge, who resigned on Oct. 23rd as part of the no contest plea agreement, still faces a possible civil suit.  According to Jonathan Turak, representing Bill Witten, whose nose Troisi bit on June 26th, "chances are very good that a suit will be filed."  Witten is currently in the Ritchie County jail and is appealing his sentence on a breaking and entering conviction.  Witten has told reporters that he is not satisfied with the plea agreement.  "I'm really disgusted," he said. "I still have a big mark on my nose. The doctors say it is permanent."

 

 

Ritchie Gazette  Vol 124  Number 15

200 E Main st  Harrisville,WV  26362

4 December 1997

 

Troisi Sentenced to Jail Time

"We can not and will not have two standards of justice."

Former Judge Apologizes to Defendant and Court for Nose-Biting Incident

By Kent R. Spellman

 

    Few citizens experience all sides of the law. Joseph Troisi became one of the few last Wednesday.   The St. Marys lawyer, who has stood in the Pleasants County courtroom as defense attorney, prosecutor, and judge, found himself at the courtroom's final station when he stood as a defendant before Special Judge Arthur Recht on Nov. 26th.   Exactly five months after he bit a defendant on the nose, Joseph Troisi was sentenced to time in the Pleasants County Jail.  Troisi, 47, resigned as Third Circuit Judge on Oct. 23rd as part of a bargain with Special Prosecutor William Forbes in which he pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor battery charge. At that time, Eorbes recommended to Judge Recht that Troisi be sentenced to one year of probation.  At the Nov. 26th sentencing hearing, however, Judge Recht went one step further. Admitting that, "This was the hardest part of the sentence," Recht said emphatically, “ We can not and we will not have two standards of justice.”    He then sentenced Troisi to five days in the Pleasants County Jail.   Troisi began serving the sentence on Monday, Dec. 1st. According to Pleasants County Sheriff Larry Bamhart, the former judge is separated from the general jail population.

    Recht said he honestly did not know if a five day sentence was too much or too little, but said, "It has to occur — to tell the community in which we live that we are a nation of laws."

 

    William "Bill" Witten, whose nose Troisi bit on June 26th, was also in the courtroom for the sentencing. Witten stood before Judge Recht in his orange ‘jail jumpsuit' and apologized for his behavior in the past, but said "I don't feel I should have been treated as I was in this courtroom."   Witten also said Troisi should have been forced to plead guilty instead of no contest. 

    Troisi was also given the opportunity to address the court.  "I want you to know that I take full responsibility for the conduct that brings me here today," Troisi said. "The consequences have been grave and serious, not only for me, but for my family."  The former judge then turned to address Witten, who was seated behind him. "Mr; Witten, when last you and I were in this courtroom together, I subjected you to conduct that was inappropriate and just plain wrong."  "I want to 'tell you it was wrong." Troisi went on, "I apologize, and if I could go back and erase what went on here, I certainly would." 

    Troisi's attorney. Harry Dietzler, of Charleston, told Judge Recht that Troisi realizes that his case "is different and that he will be treated differently. Judge Troisi has done damage to Mr. Witten, but he has also done damage to the system," Dietzler said.  He asked that Judge Recht keep in mind as he considers Troisi's sentence, that, "Joseph Troisi was a good judge, a good assistant prosecutor, and he is a good father and husband."  Recht's decision was based partly on a presentencing report prepared by William Ball, adult probation officer of Ohio County.

     Recht also received numerous letters from "those who have an interest in this phase of the procedings."  The judge said all information was considered, recorded, filed, and sealed.  Throughout the sentencing hearing, Judge Recht referred to the defendant as "Judge Troisi".  "In my eyes, you are still and will remain a judge," he said.  "Over the past weeks, I have read a great deal about Judge Troisi," Recht said. "He has a remarkable background and family." 

    Referring to the requirement of community service that was also part of the plea agreement, Recht told Troisi, "You are the type of man who will do community service without it being imposed.  Your work with the Native American population was remarkable.  The kind of work you must now do comes from within your own heart."  Troisi's wife and brother sat directly behind him throughout the procedings.  The terms of the plea agreement allow Troisi to retain  his law license, but he must pay approximatly $4,600 to reimburse the state for the cost of the investigation into his misconduct.  He must also undergo counseling and treatment for impulse and anger control. 

    The U.S. Attorney's office is un-decided on whether they will pursue prosecution of one count of violating Witten's civil rights. Troisi could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted.  Troisi also faces a possible civil suit.   Bill Witten's attorney, Jonathan Turak of Moundsville, said Witten is undecided on whether to sue the former judge for damages resulting from the bite on the tip of his nose.  "The real issue was whether Troisi would come to grips with the reality of what he did," Turak said.  "Finally, today, he did what he should have done five months ago — he acknowledged that what he did was wrong and he apologized.  If he had done that in the first place, he would be a lot better off."

 

 

Former Third Circuit Judge Joseph Troisi (r) sits with his attorney, Harry Deitzler, prior to being sentenced last Wednesday to five days in jail and one year of probation.