Wolfe, 30, has spent more than nine years on death row after he was convicted of hiring another member of his drug ring to kill the 21-year-old son of a Secret Service agent.
Wolfe owed money to Daniel Petrole Jr. for high-grade marijuana, and the case cast a spotlight on the growing drug trade among young upper-middle-class suburban men in Northern Virginia. Wolfe admitted his involvement in the drug ring but always maintained that he had nothing to do with Petrole’s death.
Jackson found that Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul B. Ebert and his assistant, Richard A. Conway, supported the use of false testimony from the admitted shooter to link Wolfe to the slaying; failed to disclose evidence that others in the drug ring might have wanted to kill Petrole; and orchestrated testimony of key witnesses, among other irregularities.
In a strongly worded 57-page opinion released Tuesday, Jackson called the government’s case against Wolfe “tenuous” and accused prosecutors of having “stifled a vigorous truth-seeking process in this criminal case.”
“Ebert and Conway’s actions served to deprive Wolfe of any substantive defense in a case where his life would rest on the jury’s verdict,” Jackson wrote. “The Court finds these actions not only unconstitutional in regards to due process, but abhorrent to the judicial process.”
The ruling was a harsh public upbraiding of Ebert, who is considered the dean of Virginia’s prosecutors and garnered national renown for his successful capital murder prosecution of Washington area sniper John Allen Muhammad. Ebert, the longest-serving prosecutor in the state, has put more defendants on death row than anyone in Virginia.
“It’s very upsetting,” said Ebert, who considers himself to be tough but fair. “It offends me to have anyone say that about me or my office.”
Conway said: “We respectfully but strongly disagree with the findings and conclusions of the court.”
It is unusual, but not unheard of, for a habeas corpus petition to result in an overturned conviction and sentence. Wolfe also was convicted of drug-related crimes and likely would not be freed because he is serving a three-decade sentence for those crimes. But he could be moved off death row.
Jackson sent the case back to the Virginia Supreme Court, and a spokesman for Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) said state lawyers are reviewing the opinion. They could appeal to the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which ordered Jackson to hold evidentiary hearings last year.
Terri Steinberg, Wolfe’s mother, said that her family was “ecstatic” to learn of Jackson’s ruling. She said she spoke with her son several times Tuesday.