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Justin Wolfe case moves back to federal appeals court

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A man accused of capital murder who has been imprisoned for more than a decade was not released from jail on Thursday as his family and attorneys had hoped, as a federal appeals court issued a late ruling that it would hear additional arguments in the case.

Judges with the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond late Thursday blocked the release of Justin Michael Wolfe, 31, who is awaiting retrial in Prince William County on charges of ordering the slaying of Daniel Petrole Jr. in 2001. Wolfe was convicted in 2002 of hiring a friend to kill Petrole, his marijuana supplier, and was sentenced to death. That decision has since been overturned, and the 4th Circuit sent the case back for a second trial.

A federal judge in Norfolk, however, has sought to halt the new capital murder proceedings.

District Court Judge Raymond A. Jackson — who initially overturned Wolfe’s conviction because he ruled that prosecutors, led by Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul B. Ebert, failed to turn over key evidence — in December barred further prosecution of Wolfe and ordered him out of jail by 5 p.m. Thursday.

Jackson cited Virginia’s failure to try Wolfe within a 120-day window and ruled that prosecutors compounded their earlier errors by again visiting the admitted gunman in the case, Owen Merton Barber IV, to discuss his potential testimony. A special prosecutor is handling the retrial. Virginia officials argue that they did not violate the 120-day mandate, indicting Wolfe anew shortly after the higher courts ruled.

The release order sent attorneys on both sides of the case scrambling on Thursday, as prosecutors appealed to both the 4th Circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court, asking for a stay. The 4th Circuit stayed the order hours before Wolfe was to be released, deciding to hear arguments during its next session, which begins in late January.

Kimberly Irving, one of Wolfe’s attorneys, said Wolfe knew he might not go free.

“He was . . . not wholly surprised; we were prepared for this,” Irving said outside the Prince William jail as she went to visit Wolfe on Thursday evening.

Robert Barnes contributed to this report.

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