Chantilly’s Wolfe no longer on death row
U.S. District judge vacates death sentence after finding man was denied due process
by Gregg MacDonald, Staff Writer
Justin Michael Wolfe, 29, of Chantilly no longer is a death row inmate.
On Tuesday, Judge Raymond A. Jackson of the U.S. District Court in Norfolk vacated Wolfe’s murder conviction and death sentence on grounds that he was denied constitutional rights.
Wolfe, a 1999 graduate of Chantilly High School, 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 the Northern Virginia region 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 to first-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison.
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 murder, claiming he was scared of receiving drug charges as police investigated the murder. He said he then turned himself in to police, hoping to persuade prosecutors he had nothing to do with the murder.
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 murder.
In that 2005 affidavit, Barber states: "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.
Last year, 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.
"That's what I've been waiting for,” said Wolfe last year when told about the new hearing. “I thought I was out of here five years ago when Owen [Barber] confessed."
In his ruling Tuesday, Judge Jackson cited Wolfe was denied due process and his right to an impartial jury by the Commonwealth’s use of Barber’s false testimony and the withholding of evidence.
“They had prior knowledge of falsities in Barber’s testimony, yet never pursued or investigated the information,” Jackson’s ruling states. “The prosecution also withheld evidence indicating that Barber told his roommate … that he acted alone on the night of Petrole’s murder.”
“We are gratified by the district court’s thorough and thoughtful review of this case,” said Wolfe’s primary attorney, Alan R. Dial of law firm King & Spalding. “Obviously, we agree with Judge Jackson’s opinion, and we are hopeful the commonwealth will accept the court’s decision and move on.”
Wolfe still faces the remainder of his drug and weapons charges, which originally amounted to more than 30 years imprisonment.
Prince William County Sherriff’s Dept. Chantilly native Justin Wolfe, sentenced to death in 2002 after being convicted in a murder-for-hire case, is no longer on death row.