The mother of a Chantilly man on Virginia’s death row spoke out against the death penalty this week in Reston, relating the hardships her family faces as it tries to get him acquitted.
Terri Steinberg’s son, Justin M. Wolfe, 31, has been on death row for 10 years.
In July 2011, Judge Raymond A. Jackson of the U.S. District Court in Norfolk vacated Wolfe’s murder conviction and death sentence on grounds he was denied constitutional rights.
“But the state appealed that ruling and Justin still sits on Death Row,” Steinberg told an audience Monday at St. John Neumann Catholic Church.
Steinberg was one of three speakers who called for the abolishment of the death penalty in Virginia, as part a forum sponsored by the group Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
A 1999 graduate of Chantilly High School, Wolfe was convicted in 2002 of ordering the 2001 killing of Daniel Robert Petrole Jr., a community college student and Centreville High School graduate.
The slaying exposed a massive drug ring that supplied a large segment of Northern Virginia with a high-grade marijuana.
Petrole sat atop the regional ring, supplying Wolfe and others with multiple pounds of marijuana on a regular basis, according to testimony at Wolfe’s 2002 trial.
A Prince William County jury convicted Wolfe primarily on the words of another former Chantilly student, Owen Merton Barber IV.
According to court documents and testimony, Barber gunned down Petrole after stalking him for more than an hour. As Petrole parked his car in front of his newly-purchased townhouse in the Braemar community of Bristow in Prince William County, Barber walked up to the passenger side of Petrole's car and fired his weapon into the victim. Barber pleaded guilty and received a life sentence instead of the death penalty for testifying against Wolfe.
According to court records, police found nearly 50 pounds of marijuana, more than $130,000 in cash, a large quantity of Ecstasy pills, several weapons and body armor in Petrole's house. They also found a list of people who owed Petrole money, including Wolfe.
Wolfe maintained his innocence in Petrole’s killing, although he also was convicted of several drug and weapons charges. He briefly fled the area after Petrole's death, and later claimed he was scared of receiving drug charges as police investigated the killing. He then turned himself in to police, hoping to persuade prosecutors he had nothing to do with the killing.
“He said to me, ‘Mom, they think I had something to do with Danny’s death,’” said Steinberg. “He said to me, ‘I have to clear my name.’”
In court, Barber admitted killing Petrole, but in December 2005 in a 13-page affidavit he recanted his claim that Wolfe ordered or had any part in the killing.
In that 2005 affidavit, Barber stated: "Justin [Wolfe] had nothing to do with the killing of Daniel Petrole. There was no agreement between Justin and me to kill Danny Petrole. I did not have any discussion, at any time, with Justin about killing Danny Petrole. I lied and implicated Justin because I felt I had no choice."
Barber detailed in the affidavit alleged pressure put on him by Prince William County prosecutors — led by Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul Ebert — and his own defense attorney, to testify against Wolfe or face a possible death sentence. Ebert did not return phone calls left for him.
In 2010, an order from the U.S. Eastern District Court of Virginia for a new evidentiary hearing cleared the way for material not originally presented in court, including evidence the defense thought was withheld that could have benefitted Wolfe, such as recordings of interviews with witnesses, as well as Barber's affidavit.
This order led to the 2011 overturning of Wolfe’s conviction, which the state appealed. A decision stemming from that hearing is pending.
On Monday, Steinberg related how her son’s original death row conviction affected her family.
“It was an incredible sadness that we faced every day,” she said. “Neighbors seemed to keep their distance and treated us as though we had something contagious. My 4-year-old daughter didn’t understand of course, and would write letters to Santa Claus every year asking him to bring her brother home. We explained it all to her when she turned 11.”
Steinberg said for 10 years her son has been kept in solitary confinement 24 hours per day in a 6-by 8-foot cell that contained only a bed, a toilet and a sink.
“I worry about how that environment has affected him,” she said. “I worry even more that in the last 10 years he has seen 18 men — the very men who befriended him and taught him how to survive on death row — go to their deaths. When Justin first got to his Death Row cell, he was given only a thin mattress and a rough blanket. The other men on death row, these so-called ‘monsters’ gave Justin their own magazines and other items, so that he could have something that was his own. I have looked into the eyes of these so-called monsters and I have seen compassion, not people who committed horrible crimes. That is one of the reasons I oppose the death penalty.”
According to Steinberg, one of the men who befriended her son and was later executed was John Allen Muhammad, the Beltway sniper responsible for a Washington, D.C.-area shooting spree that resulted in 10 deaths.
“Even this man who was the poster-child for why the death penalty exists, later showed compassion and often shared his vegetables with Justin, who he liked,” Steinberg said.” Before he was executed, Muhammad wrote me a letter that said ‘If I get any relief in my case, I will ask that your son go home first.’”
For now, Steinberg said her son’s coming home is contingent on a decision by appeals court Judge Robert King.
“Now we will just wait for a decision,” she said. “We were told it could be anytime between now and September. …One way or another Justin will go home, but right now I don’t know if it will be to me — or to the Almighty Father in Heaven.”