Prosecutor says he will retry former Virginia death row inmate Justin Wolfe

September 14, 2012

A Prince William County man will again face the possibility of a death sentence, the case’s new prosecutor said Friday, dashing hopes of the man’s supporters that a capital murder charge would be dropped after a federal appeals court vacated the original conviction.

Justin Michael Wolfe, 31, has been behind bars for more than 11 years after being charged with ordering the killing of Daniel R. Petrole Jr., who was shot nine times outside his Bristow townhouse in March 2001. According to authorities, Petrole, 21, was part of a marijuana organization that included Wolfe, and Wolfe owed Petrole tens of thousands of dollars when Petrole was killed.

Wolfe’s attorney, Matthew Engle of the University of Virginia Innocence Project, said in Prince William Circuit Court on Friday that he thought it was “extremely unlikely that this will be able to go forward with capital murder charges.”

But the newly appointed special prosecutor, Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh (D), indicated that he would pursue a capital murder case. A trial date was set for Oct. 15. “It seems clear to me this defendant was absolutely involved in this murder,” Morrogh said.

Wolfe’s mother, Teri Steinberg, wept outside court Friday. “It should have turned out different,” she said.


Justin Michael Wolfe listens to one of his attorneys, Rachel M. Fierro, during his trial in Manassas. (Dylan Moore/The Potomac News)

Prince William Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul B. Ebert (D) had asked that Morrogh be appointed in light of the decision overturning Wolfe’s 2002 convictions on murder, drug and gun charges. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled that Wolfe’s trial was tainted because Prince William prosecutors had failed to turn over evidence that could have been used in his defense.

Retrying Wolfe could be difficult because the crime occurred more than a decade ago and authorities dismantled the drug ring shortly thereafter.

A key witness in the case — Owen M. Barber IV, who admitted shooting 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. He later recanted that testimony, then disavowed his recantation and then testified in federal court that he had acted alone.

Jeremy Borden covers Prince William County, Va., for The Washington Post.
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