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Fourth Circuit Critical of Prosecutors in Wolfe Case

A federal appeals court has affirmed a lower court’s decision overturning a murder-for-hire conviction.

Virginia and Prince William County prosecutors were handed another rebuke by a federal court related to the trial of Justin Michael Wolfe, whose conviction for ordering the murder of Daniel Robert Petrole Jr. was overturned last year.

Wolfe, 31, from Chantilly, learned Thursday that the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals agreed with a , primarily because of the lack of disclosure of exculpatory evidence by the prosecutors.

Wolfe’s family was tempered in their elation, being mindful that the case centered on the death of another young man.

“We must never forget the victim of this crime,” said Terri Steinberg, Wolfe’s mother, in a prepared statement. “My heart goes out to the family of Daniel Petrole Jr. My family has suffered and the Petrole family has suffered.”

Owen Merton Barber IV admitted to killing Petrole—a Centreville resident—in 2001. Barber testified against Wolfe in a 2002 trial, but later recanted his testimony, saying prosecutors and his own defense attorney forced him to testify to escape the death penalty. Barber has stated in federal court Wolfe had nothing to do with Petrole’s murder, which happened in Bristow. The court also upheld the vacation of a 30-year drug sentence against Wolfe.

“We are grateful to the courts for doing justice in Justin’s case,” Steinberg said. “Justin is innocent. He has spent 11 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.”

The Newsome Report

The 4th Circuit judges’ opinion stated they based their decision mostly on the prosecution’s failure to disclose a document from Det. Samson Newsome, considered exculpatory to Wolfe.

Prosecutors “inexplicably withheld the Newsome report,” the court opinion stated. The report highlighted Newsome telling Barber “’he had killed [Petrole] for someone else and we believed that person was Justin Wolfe … ‘I told him it could simply be the difference between Capitol [sic] murder or First Degree, execution or life in prison … ‘”

The judges point out the detective gave Barber the most important information he would need to testify against Wolfe before Barber said a word.

“The Newsome report is indubitably impeaching, in that it establishes a motive not only for Barber to implicate someone else, but to point the finger specifically at Wolfe. Indeed, it cannot be trivialized that — as Detective Newsome’s own report demonstrates — Newsome fed Barber the crux of his testimony, i.e., that he was hired by Wolfe to murder Petrole.”

The court also found Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul Ebert “intentionally” withheld evidence because defendants might, in Ebert’s words, “fabricate a defense.”

Calling it a “flabbergasting explanation,” the 4th Circuit found “the district court rightly lambasted that conduct …”

Barber told a U.S. District Court judge in November 2010 that from the time Newsome gave him Wolfe's name, investigators, prosecutors and his attorney told him he could only avoid the death penalty by testifying against Wolfe.

“I mean, they said they wanted to the truth, but at the same time they said that this is what you have got to say or you are getting the chair,” Barber said in 2010.

'Unconstitutional'

While basing the decision on the failure to disclose the Newsome report, the 4th Circuit judges mentioned several other pieces of evidence that were not disclosed to Wolfe prior to his trial, including evidence that might have impeached Barber, evidence that might have impeached prosecution witnesses who corroborated Barber and evidence suggesting an alternate theory about why Barber followed Petrole home on March 15, 2001.

“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,” the opinion states.

The District Court had previously stated that “finds these actions not only unconstitutional in regards to due process but abhorrent to the judicial process.”

The 4th Circuit judges said, “We sincerely hope that the Commonwealth’s Attorney and his assistants have finally taken heed of those rebukes.”

In one part of the opinion, in response to an argument from the state that it was unfair for Wolfe to present information only obtained after a federal court order in 2010, the Circuit Court judges scoffed.

“ … 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 prosecutors obviously should have disclosed prior to Wolfe’s capital murder trial.”

Next Steps

Next, the state must decide whether to request a new hearing, seek an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, prepare for a new trial or drop the case. For at least the next two weeks, Wolfe remains on death row as the court decides whether to keep him in custody during any potential state appeal.

“It is time for the Commonwealth to stop pursuing this wrongful conviction and for Justin to come home to his family,” Steinberg 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.”

Ashley Parrish, an attorney with King & Spalding—which represented Wolfe with the assistance of the Virginia Capital Representation Resource Center and the UVA-based Virginia chapter of the Innocence Project—agreed.

“We are hopeful that in light of the Fourth Circuit’s decision, the Commonwealth will stop pursuing this wrongful conviction and will allow Justin to return home to his family," he said.

Attempts to reach Ebert and Petrole's family were unsuccessful.

UVA Law posted a story about the work of the its students and the Innocence Project on Wolfe's case. That group culled through boxes of investigative evidence the federal courts ordered the state to turn over to Wolfe's defense team.

Previous Patch stories about the case:

  • May 17, 2012
  • March 19, 2012
  • Dec. 2. 2011
  • Sep. 8, 2011
  • Aug. 31, 2011
  • July 20, 2011
  • July 13, 2011
  • July 12, 2011
  • Nov. 22, 2010
  • Nov. 8, 2010
Jen C. August 17, 2012 at 01:28 PM
This poor kid needs to go home. In a nutshell, he was given the death penalty for selling weed. I htink he has served more than what he had coming to him and should be released immediately, for what my humble opinion is worth. The commonwealth prosecutor should be ashamed of himself. FREE JUSTIN WOLFE!
Stephen Finn August 17, 2012 at 02:58 PM
Everyone interested in this case should read the 4th Circuit Court's ruling on this case (posted 8/16/20122 on their web-site). The commonwealth DA office has been rebuked by a lower court, 34 former DAs and judges (filed a Friend of the Court brief with the 4th Circuit Court) and now re-affirmed by the 4th Circuit).
Ben Glass August 18, 2012 at 02:03 AM
The opinion is here http://www.vamedmal.com/blog/justin-wolfe-death-sentence-vacated-4th-circuit-opinion.cfm
DAVE ROBERTS August 23, 2012 at 05:30 PM
Let's be clear about one thing. No court has said that Justin Wolfe is "innocent"....In fact, a review of the trial transcript and testimony show that he probably is guilty of both the drug distribution and murder charges. What is at issue in the case is the behavior of PAUL EBERT and RICK CONWAY, the unethical Commonwealth Attorney and Asst Commonwealth Attorney for Prince William County. For decades, his office has being suppressing Brady material from defense attorneys and deciding what evidence is relevant and made available to a criminal defendant. Paul Ebert's testimony at the US Court of Appeals about why evidence isn't turned over to defense counsel would be laughable if it weren't so scary. This is one of the main reasons his death penalty conviction rate is so high, and although he should really be ashamed of his unethcal treatment of defendants, he IS NOT. His office makes The Fairfax County Commonwealth Attorney's look like defenders of the Constitution in comparison. At this point, they won't agree to drop the charges, because they believe (probably rightfully) that Justin Wolfe is guilty of soliciation of murder. A retrial is now going to be much tougher, but it will happen because a murderer should not get a free pass just because a prosecutor deliberately withheld exculpatory evidence.
DAVE ROBERTS August 23, 2012 at 05:33 PM
MY PREDICTION-The case will be sent back to Prince William County and a special prosecutor will be brought in for the retrial. They will take the death penalty off the table and he will be reconvicted after a long trial. ...See More

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