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Posted at 04:38 PM ET, 09/13/2012

New prosecutor appointed in case of Justin Michael Wolfe, charged in murder-for-hire case

A Prince William County judge has appointed a new prosecutor in the case of a man who has spent most of the past 11 years on Virginia’s death row and whose murder-for-hire and drug convictions were overturned in federal court.

Ray Morrogh, Fairfax County’s top prosecutor, will take over the case against Justin Michael Wolfe, according to Prince William Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul B. Ebert.

Wolfe, 31, is charged with ordering the murder of Daniel Petrole Jr., who was shot numerous times outside his Bristow townhouse in March 2001. Petrole was part of a sprawling marijuana organization that allegedly included Wolfe, and Wolfe allegedly owed Petrole tens of thousands of dollars when Petrole died.

Ebert recused himself and his office from the case after a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled that Wolfe’s 2002 trial was tainted because Prince William prosecutors failed to turn over evidence that could have been used in his defense.

Federal judges harshly criticized Ebert’s office for withholding police reports and information about the investigation into Petrole’s death. The courts ultimately overturned and vacated Wolfe’s capital murder and drug convictions.

But the 4th Circuit also made it clear that prosecutors could re-try Wolfe, who could again face a maximum punishment of death.

“In view of the allegations, we thought it would be in the best interest of justice to get somebody fresh,” Ebert said.

Ebert said Morrogh will have “total discretion” in his handling of the case, including pursuing the capital murder charges or dropping them altogether. Wolfe also could face prosecution on drug charges; Wolfe testified at his first trial that he sold large amounts of marijuana in the Northern Virginia suburbs, and it is unclear if that testimony can be used against him in a new trial.

Morrogh — a longtime prosecutor who has handled numerous high-profile cases, including the trial of D.C. sniper Lee Boyd Malvo — couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday.

Re-trying Wolfe could be difficult, as the crime happened more than a decade ago and police dismantled the drug cartel shortly thereafter. A key witness in the case — Owen Merton Barber IV, who admitted he shot Petrole and is serving a lengthy prison sentence — has changed his story several times. As part of a plea deal, Barber testified at trial that Wolfe hired him, but Barber later recanted that testimony, then said his recantation was false, then testified in federal court that he acted alone.

Prosecutors told jurors at Wolfe’s trial that they did not need to believe Barber to convict Wolfe.

Wolfe’s family members have long maintained that Wolfe is innocent of the murder and have asked prosecutors to stop pursuing him, arguing that more than a decade on death row is more punishment than he deserved.

This item has been updated.

By and  |  04:38 PM ET, 09/13/2012

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