The 2002 capital murder sentencing of Chantilly native Justin Wolfe — who has been sitting on Death Row for more than a decade — has been overturned, once again, by a federal court.
On Aug. 16, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled Wolfe’s 2002 murder trial was tainted by the prosecution’s withholding of evidence, and ruled his conviction should be vacated.
The same conclusion was previously reached by Judge Raymond A. Jackson of the U.S. District Court in Norfolk, who in 2011 vacated Wolfe’s murder conviction and death sentence on grounds he was denied constitutional rights. The judge ordered the Commonwealth of Virginia to “either retry him within 120 days or release him unconditionally from custody,” according to court records.
“But the state appealed that ruling and Justin still sits on Death Row today,” said Wolfe’s mother, Terri Steinberg, last week. “The Commonwealth has two weeks from the date of the recent decision to decide if it will appeal again.”
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 high-grade marijuana.
Petrole supplied 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,’” Steinberg said. “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 seeking a comment.
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, and again to the ruling of the 4th Circuit Court’s decision.
Although it vacates his death sentence, the recent ruling allows for Wolfe to be retried by the Commonwealth for murder, as well as Wolfe’s original firearm and drug conspiracy charges.
Ebert has not yet indicated publicly whether or not the Commonwealth will pursue that course of action.
"We are pleased with today’s decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit affirming the district court’s grant of habeas corpus relief vacating Justin Wolfe’s convictions and death sentence,” said Wolfe’s attorney, Ashley Parrish.
For Steinberg, it is back to waiting, something she knows all too well.
“We are grateful to the courts for doing justice in Justin’s case. Justin is innocent. He has spent 11 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. It is time for the Commonwealth to stop pursuing this wrongful conviction and for Justin to come home to his family,” she said.
“The Commonwealth should not appeal the court’s ruling. This case has already gone on too long, wasted too much taxpayer money, and destroyed too many lives.”