POSSIBLE INNOCENCE: Federal Judge Orders Virginia To Free Death Row Inmate

On December 26, U.S. District Court Judge Raymond Jackson ordered Virginia to unconditionally free death row inmate Justin Wolfe within 10 days and barred the state from using its key witness in any retrial of Wolfe. Wolfe was convicted of conspiracy in the murder of Daniel Petrole, a fellow drug dealer in northern Virginia. His conviction was based primarily on the testimony of the actual shooter, Owen Barber, who claimed that Wolfe hired him to kill Petrole because of an outstanding debt. In 2010, Barber testified in open court, subject to cross-examination, that his testimony at Wolfe's trial was false, and that Wolfe had nothing to do with Petrole's death. Barber has also admitted that he agreed to implicate Wolfe in order to avoid the death penalty. Judge Jackson held that Virginia had failed to comply with his earlier order to either free Wolfe or retry him within 120 days. He called the state's case a "bungled prosecution," and concluded that the state's withholding of key evidence about Barber from the defense precluded any retrial of Wolfe using Barber's testimony in any form. Barber, who remains in prison, has recently invoked his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent.

The judge criticized a recent visit by the state with Barber as "the same subtle but unmistakable coercion," using the threat of the death penalty to induce Barber to testify against Wolfe.  Kimberly Irving, one of Wolfe’s attorneys, said of the court's ruling, "We are pleased and we hope the court unconditionally releases him as Judge Jackson ordered. We believe it’s time for him to go home.”

("Federal judge bars Va. prosecutors from retrying ex-death-row inmate in murder-for-hire case," Associated Press in Washington Post, Dec. 26, 2012).  See Innocence and DPIC's page on Justin Wolfe.