The 2002 murder case of Chantilly native Justin Wolfe — who sat on Death Row for more than a decade before having his conviction overturned by a federal appeals court in August —will be heard once again, according to Prince William County prosecutors.
On Aug. 16, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled that Wolfe’s 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.
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 last month by the 4th Circuit Court.
Although that ruling vacated Wolfe’s sentence, it allowed for Wolfe to be retried by the Commonwealth for murder, as well as Wolfe’s original firearm and drug conspiracy charges.
Prince William County prosecutors announced this week that Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh (D), has been appointed as a special prosecutor in Wolfe’s new trial, which is currently scheduled to begin on Oct. 15.
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,’” his mother, Terri 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.
“This case has already gone on too long, wasted too much taxpayer money, and destroyed too many lives,” said a disheartened Steinberg.