U.S. Court of Appeals Throws Out Virginian's Death Sentence and Conviction

On August 16, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed a lower court ruling vacating Justin Wolfe’s (pictured) conviction and death sentence for a drug-conspiracy murder in Virginia in 2001.  His conviction was based primarily on the testimony of the actual shooter, Owen Barber, who claimed that Wolfe hired him to kill Daniel Petrole because of an outstanding drug debt. In 2010, Barber testified in open court that his testimony at Wolfe's trial was false, and that Wolfe had nothing to do with Petrole's death. Barber also admitted he agreed to implicate Wolfe in order to avoid the death penalty.  The 4th Circuit threw out all of Wolfe's convictions because the state had withheld crucial evidence showing that it was the police who introduced Barber to the idea of Wolfe's part in the conspiracy, and implying that Barber could avoid the death penalty if he so testified. (Referring to the Newsome report).  The court criticized the prosecution for intentionally withholding vital materials from the defense: "[W]e feel compelled to acknowledge that the Commonwealth’s suppression of the Newsome report, as well as other apparent Brady materials, was entirely intentional," the court wrote.

The lower federal District Court concluded that Wolfe had demonstrated actual innocence, satisfying the Supreme Court's requirement for a review of his constitutional claims. The court 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.”  The Court ordered the state to either free Wolfe or re-try him.  The state could first request a re-hearing en banc or petition the U.S. Supreme Court for review. UPDATE: The state's opportunity to request an en banc re-hearing has passed.  They may still appeal to the Supreme Court. (Aug. 30, 2012).

(DPIC Posted, August 16, 2012).  Read DPIC's Press Release.  For more information, visit DPIC's resource page on Justin Wolfe.  See Innocence.  Listen to our podcast on Innocence.