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Va. death row inmate gets hearing, seeks to introduce new evidence

Justin Michael Wolfe, an admitted drug dealer who was convicted in 2002 of capital murder for hiring a friend to kill another drug dealer in Prince William County, has been granted an evidentiary hearing as part of his federal habeas corpus appeal.

Wolfe, of Centreville, who was 21 at the time of his conviction, is on Virginia’s death row for his role in the 2000 slaying of Daniel Petrole, a shooting that exposed a multi-million-dollar high-grade marijuana distribution ring in Northern Virginia.

Owen Merton Barber IV admitted following and then shooting Petrole multiple times, and Barber testified in court that Wolfe had hired him to do so as part of a plan to erase tens of thousands of dollars in drug debts.

Lawyers who represent Wolfe allege that prosecutors did not turn over all exculpatory evidence in the case – some of which, they argue, would have been enough to change the jury’s guilty verdict -- and that prosecutors coordinated testimony among witnesses.

Justin Michael Wolfe
Justin Michael Wolfe. (File Photo/AP)

Lawyers who represent Wolfe allege that prosecutors did not turn over all exculpatory evidence in the case -- some of which, they argue, would have been enough to change the jury’s guilty verdict -- and that prosecutors coordinated testimony among witnesses.

Prosecutors have said there is no merit to the accusations and that Wolfe, facing the death penalty, is grasping at whatever might help him.

Wolfe’s lawyers have been seeking to introduce statements Barber made in prison recanting his testimony against Wolfe, statements that could prove Barber’s story was concocted for trial. Barber, whose testimony was key to Wolfe’s conviction and was the most damning evidence against him, apparently has changed his story multiple times and he has since three times recanted his recantation, most recently in 2009, according to court documents.

It’s a twisted road, with Wolfe and most of the witnesses involved having been part of a significant drug organization.

Though Wolfe’s quest for an evidentiary hearing to explore these issues was originally denied in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia in Norfolk, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit sent it back in May 2009 to reevaluate the need for such a hearing. District Judge Raymond A. Jackson in Norfolk signed an order on Feb. 4 granting the hearing and additional discovery, meaning the defense team could get evidence it hasn’t previously seen.

Jackson wrote:

In this case, there are two stories of what occurred on the night of the murder, both with hearsay corroboration -- and almost no other evidence that would support one version over another. Even considering the affidavits critically, there is enough to raise doubt in a reasonable juror's mind about the circumstances of the night of the murder.

Prince William County prosecutors have maintained that Wolfe is guilty of the crime and that the case against him is a strong one, adding that a jury agreed.

Michele Brace, one of Wolfe's lawyers, said she hopes to show that prosecutors suppressed information and manipulated testimony, things that could lead to the capital conviction being overturned if proven. "We think this ruling is a positive development and look forward to the opportunity to review and develop the evidence withheld during Wolfe's trial," Brace said.

The parties are scheduled to meet within the next month to set a hearing date.

The hearing does not presume that Wolfe will make successful claims but gives him the opportunity to review evidence and make additional arguments. Even if the conviction is overturned, prosecutors could choose to restart the case against him, and it would be highly unlikely Wolfe would be released, as he also is serving a 33-year sentence on drug and weapons convictions.

-- Josh White, with researcher Julie Tate

By Josh White  |  February 11, 2010; 8:20 AM ET
Categories:  Death Penalty , From the Courthouse , Homicide , Josh White , Pr. William , Updates  
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Comments

How can Wolfe be "on Virginia's death row" when Virginia law does *not* have a provision for imposing the death sentence on anyone involved in a capital crime except on the so-called "trigger man"?

Posted by: tdb001 | February 11, 2010 3:44 PM | Report abuse

We are encouraged that Judge Jackson has ruled to grant an evidentiary hearing and additional discovery in the case of Justin Wolfe. It surely is a "twisted" road that the courts should straighten out. A young man's life is at stake.

Jean Auldridge
Virginia CURE

Posted by: jeanauldridge | February 11, 2010 5:29 PM | Report abuse

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