May 18, 2012
A murder-for-hire conviction and death sentence should be reinstated against a Prince William County man because evidence withheld by prosecutors would not have made any difference at this trial, a lawyer for the state told a federal appeals panel Thursday.
But an attorney for Justin Michael Wolfe argued that a federal judge got it right when he ruled that his client was wrongfully convicted in the 2001 slaying of his marijuana supplier, Daniel Petrole Jr. The triggerman, Owen Barber IV, in 2005 recanted his original testimony that Wolfe hired him to kill Petrole.
After a four-day evidentiary hearing last year, U.S. District Judge Raymond A. Jackson of Norfolk found Barber's recantation credible and ruled that prosecutors improperly suppressed several pieces of evidence, including a report by a police officer who flew to California to bring Barber back to Virginia. The report says the officer told Barber he might avoid the death penalty if he implicated Wolfe in the slaying.
Katherine Burnett, a senior assistant attorney general, said the report had no value to the defense and therefore did not have to be disclosed. However, Wolfe attorney Ashley Parrish said defense attorneys were entitled to question the prosecution's star witness about the contents of the document.
"When the prosecution decides to tie its case to one witness, any evidence that calls his credibility into question is material," he said.
Burnett said that even without Barber's testimony, there was sufficient evidence to convict Wolfe — including his own testimony, which she said "corroborated 90 percent of the commonwealth's case."
Parrish said Wolfe, 31, admitted involvement in the drug conspiracy but vehemently denied responsibility for Petrole's murder.
Barber took back his recantation in two subsequent affidavits, but was questioned along with other witnesses — including Wolfe's prosecutors — at last year's evidentiary hearing. Parrish said Jackson's finding on the credibility of the witnesses is entitled to substantial deference by the appeals court.
In last year's ruling, Jackson wrote that the actions of Prince William prosecutors were "not only unconstitutional in regards to due process, but abhorrent to the judicial process."
Prosecutors have denied any wrongdoing and said that if the conviction were vacated they may try Wolfe again.
Burnett said there was no evidence that "the prosecution deliberately presented any false evidence in this case," but appeals court Judge Robert King noted that Prince William prosecutors — unlike many others — do not have an "open file" policy in which the defense is given access to everything.
"What's held back is knowingly and intentionally withheld," he said.
Burnett said prosecutors must only disclose material evidence, and an open file policy is not required by the Constitution.
The Wolfe and Barber cases exposed a multimillion-dollar drug ring run by young people barely out of high school in the wealthy northern Virginia suburbs. According to trial testimony, Wolfe was making $10,000 to $15,000 a month selling high-grade marijuana he bought from Petrole. At the time of Petrole's death, Wolfe owed him about $60,000.
Barber agreed to plead guilty to first-degree murder and testify against Wolfe in exchange for a life sentence.
Wolfe's mother, Terri Steinberg, broke into tears and hugged family members and friends after Thursday's hearing.
"We're hopeful," she said in an interview outside the courtroom. "We just pray that this court affirms Judge Jackson's decision and this nightmare can end for my family. It's been hard on the Petrole family too."
The appeals court typically rules several weeks after hearing arguments.