The Supreme Court will not stop prosecutors from pursuing a new trial for a Prince William County man who faced a death sentence before his conviction was overturned on appeal.
The justices’ decision is the latest chapter in a legal saga that began in 2002, when Justin Michael Wolfe was convicted of capital murder after jurors determined he hired a member of his Northern Virginia drug ring to kill a marijuana supplier. Wolfe owed a large amount of money to the supplier and allegedly made off with a large delivery of marijuana the night his supplier was killed, according to testimony.
Wolfe stayed on death row until 2011, when a federal judge overturned his conviction, concluding that prosecutors withheld or ignored evidence that could have helped his defense.
Since that ruling, Virginia prosecutors have been seeking to convict Wolfe under a new set of indictments. Defense attorneys have been pushing to have the case dropped for good, arguing that a fair trial is now impossible.
On Monday, the high court declined to intervene in the case, a move that allows the prosecution to move forward. A hearing in the case is set for March, but no trial date has been set.
Ashley Parrish, one of Wolfe’s lawyers, said the justices’ decision was “not too surprising,” pointing out that the Supreme Court usually grants only a few petitions out of many similar to Wolfe’s. Still, he noted, lower courts have noted problems in the way the case has been handled.
“I don’t think it does anything to wash away the serious issues of prosecutorial misconduct that have been flagged in the case,” Parrish said.
Wolfe is accused of ordering the 2001 killing of Daniel Petrole Jr., who was part of a large marijuana organization.
Retrying Wolfe could be challenging for prosecutors. A key witness in the case — Owen Merton Barber IV, who admitted he shot Petrole — testified as part of a plea deal that he had been hired by Wolfe. Barber has since changed his story several times, including telling a federal district court judge that law enforcement officials told him he needed to blame Wolfe. It is unclear what Barber might say if called to the stand in a new trial.
In the 2011 ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Raymond Jackson said the office of Prince William County Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul B. Ebert supported the use of false testimony from Barber and failed to disclose evidence that others in the drug ring might have wanted to kill Petrole. At the time, prosecutors said they disagreed with the ruling.
Ebert then recused himself from the case, and Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond Morrogh was appointed as a special prosecutor.
In a ruling a year later, Jackson said prosecutors “permanently crystallized” mistakes made in the case, eliminating the possibility of a fair trial. He barred further prosecution of Wolfe in connection with Petrole’s killing.
But in May of last year, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that ruling, allowing the case against Wolfe to proceed. The defense then asked the high court to intervene.
Terri Steinberg, Wolfe’s mother, said she and her son’s lawyers will continue to fight for his innocence. “We’re very disappointed, of course,” Steinberg said. “It just seems like there’s no accountability.”
Morrogh, the special prosecutor, did not respond to a request for comment.