A federal court overstepped its authority by halting the capital murder retrial of a Prince William County man, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday in a 2-1 decision.
Virginia prosecutors are now free to pursue a new case against Justin Michael Wolfe in Prince William.
Wolfe has been behind bars since 2002, when a jury convicted him of hiring Owen M. Barber IV, a member of his Northern Virginia drug ring, to kill Daniel Petrole Jr., a marijuana supplier. Prosecutors have said Wolfe owed Petrole significant sums of money.
That conviction was overturned after a U.S. district court found that the office of Prince William Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul B. Ebert (D) failed to turn over key evidence to Wolfe’s attorneys. The ruling Wednesday again vacated the conviction and ordered it expunged from Wolfe’s record.
At his original trial, Barber testified that Wolfe had hired him to kill Petrole. But he later recanted and said prosecutors had told him to testify falsely.
Ebert and his team visited Barber, the state’s key witness and the admitted shooter in the murder, at an Augusta County prison before Wolfe’s new trial was to begin. Defense attorneys say that Ebert tried to pressure Barber into again testifying at the new trial that Wolfe hired him to kill Petrole.
Even though Ebert recused himself from the case shortly after that meeting, federal district court Judge Raymond A. Jackson ruled in December that state prosecutors’ conduct “permanently crystalized” errors made in the case and made a fair trial for Wolfe impossible. He also said said the prosecution had failed to bring the case to trial within the 120-day limit the court had set.
Jackson ordered Wolfe’s release and barred any further prosecution of Wolfe in relation to Petrole’s murder. The 4th Circuit overturned that decision and allowed state authorities to retry Wolfe on the original charges or any other charges they feel are appropriate to pursue.
“Put simply, the task of conducting Wolfe’s retrial is for the state trial court, and it is not for us to express a view on how that court should manage its affairs,” Judge Robert B. King wrote in the majority opinion. “We are confident that the retrial will be properly handled, and, if convictions result, that the appellate courts will perform their duties.”
A Prince William County grand jury indicted Wolfe anew in October on six additional charges, including capital murder by order of a person engaged in a continuing criminal enterprise and leading a criminal enterprise that distributed more than $100,000 worth of marijuana. Wolfe, on the stand during his original trial, admitted rampant drug use and sales. A trial date on the new charges has not been set.
Judge Stephanie D. Thacker, in a dissent, said that the state’s case against Wolfe should be dropped due to “continued misconduct.” While it would be a rare decision for a federal appeal’s court to bar a state court from trying a case, prosecutors’ conduct justifies that decision, Thacker wrote. “... it is doubtful Wolfe will receive a fair and just trial. Enough is enough.”
Terri Steinberg, Wolfe’s mother, has maintained her son’s innocence. She could not be reached Wednesday afternoon for comment. Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond Morrogh, who has been appointed in the case, also could not be reached Wednesday.