Death Sentence and Conviction of Justin Wolfe Thrown Out by U.S. Court of Appeals
On August 16, 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed a lower court ruling that vacated Justin Wolfe’s conviction and death sentence for a drug-conspiracy murder in Virginia in 2001. For more information on the decision, read DPIC's press release. See also DPIC's post on the reversal of Wolfe's conviction.
UPDATES: On May 22, 2013, the 4th Circuit reversed the District Court's ruling forbidding the re-trial of Wolfe, but upheld the court's order for his release on the original charges. (Wash. Post, May 22, 2013).
UPDATES: The 4th Circuit stayed Wolfe's release pending a hearing on whether the state can be restricted from retrying him. "Justin Wolfe case moves back to federal appeals court" (Wash. Post, Jan. 3, 2013).
UPDATES: Federal Judge Orders Virginia To Free Death Row Inmate (Wash. Post, Dec. 27, 2012).
UPDATES: On September 13, 2012, the original Commonwealth Attorneys who prosecuted Justin Wolfe in Virginia recused themselves from his case. A special prosecutor, Raymond Morrogh of Fairfax County, was appointed by the judge. The next day, Morrogh announced he would retry Wolfe on all charges, beginning on Oct. 15. Wolfe's convictions and death sentence were reversed in federal court because the state withheld evidence that might have led to his acquittal. (Wash. Post, Sept. 13-14, 2012).
The re-trial was delayed at the request of the prosecution and a new date will likely be set for 2013. A new indictment was issued.
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit Opinion, August 16, 2012
"The single, plainly momentous item of suppressed Barber impeachment evidence on which we rest today’s decision is a written police report reflecting that — before Barber ever asserted that Wolfe hired him to murder Petrole — Prince William County Detective Newsome advised Barber that he could avoid the death penalty by implicating Wolfe."
"While we look no further than the Newsome report today, we do not condone the prosecution’s apparent suppression of other Brady material and the pattern of conduct that it reveals."
"In any event, it is difficult to take seriously the Commonwealth’s protestations of unfair ambush, when Wolfe had to labor for years from death row to obtain evidence that had been tenaciously concealed by the Commonwealth, and that the prosecution obviously should have disclosed prior to Wolfe’s capital murder trial."
"The Commonwealth's capital murder case against Wolfe can best be described as tenuous, A review of the trial proceedings unveiled witness testimony replete with hearsay and speculation. The physical evidence that did exist, mainly the records disclosing the phone call activity between Barber and Wolfe, was circumstantial. As the Court has repeatedly mentioned, the only direct evidence linking Petitioner to the capital murder was the testimony of Owen Barber."
"In effect, (prosecutor) Ebert admits here that his contempt of defendants who 'fabricate a defense' guides his perspective on
disclosing information. This is particularly troubling in the case at bar where the record is replete with statements from Ebert and Conway regarding the scrutiny and credibility determinations that they made (as opposed to the jury) regarding the relevance of any potential exculpatory evidence. Essentially, in an effort to ensure that no defense would be 'fabricated,' Ebert and Conway's actions served to deprive Wolfe of any substantive defense in a case where his life would rest on the jury's verdict. The Court finds these actions not only unconstitutional in regards to due process, but abhorrent to the judicial process."
From the Virginian-Pilot: Ending the Pursuit of an Innocent Man, August 22, 2012
From DPIC: "NEW VOICES: Former Judges and Law Enforcement Officials Criticize Death Row Inmate's Conviction," March 2012
DPIC's podcast on Innocence
For Immediate Release: August 16, 2012
U.S. COURT OF APPEALS VACATES CONVICTION AND DEATH SENTENCE OF JUSTIN WOLFE
Virginia Inmate Vindicated After Finding of Prosecutorial Misconduct
WASHINGTON, DC – On August 16, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed a lower court ruling that vacated Justin Wolfe’s conviction and death sentence for a drug-conspiracy murder in Virginia in 2001. The Court found that the prosecution suppressed important exculpatory evidence. Wolfe maintained his innocence throughout his incarceration. He has been on Virginia’s death row since 2002.
“This case demonstrates that the danger of wrongful convictions in death penalty cases continues,” said Richard Dieter, Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC). “Since 1973, 140 people have been exonerated and freed from death row. This level of risk of executing the innocent is unacceptable.”
The earlier U.S. District Court ruling concluded that Wolfe had shown he was actually innocent, satisfying applicable Supreme Court precedent, and described the prosecution’s case against Wolfe as tenuous at best: “A review of the trial proceedings unveiled witness testimony replete with hearsay and speculation. The physical evidence that did exist ... was circumstantial.”
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.
The appeals court citied critical evidence withheld by the prosecution, including that the police advised Barber that he could avoid the death penalty by implicating Wolfe.
The prosecution also failed to disclose statements by Barber’s roommate, Jason Coleman, who said Barber admitted to him that he murdered Petrole and acted alone. The District Court held, “[T]he substance and nature of the suppressed evidence reasonably undermines the Court's confidence in this verdict.”
John Partridge, the attorney who represented Wolfe at trial, had his law license revoked shortly after Wolfe’s conviction for mishandling other cases. Partridge had never handled a capital murder trial before Wolfe’s.
Since the Commonwealth of Virginia has not yet announced its intentions for further action in this case, it would be premature to include Justin Wolfe on DPIC’s Exoneration List. Inclusion on the list requires that all charges related to the murder be dismissed. Nevertheless, Wolfe’s case presents a strong case of probable innocence and of official misconduct that could have led to a wrongful execution.
To speak with Richard Dieter, Executive Director of DPIC, about prominent causes of wrongful convictions and other issues related to the death penalty, please contact Elaine de Leon at 202-289-2275 or firstname.lastname@example.org.