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.
“It’s the best we could have hoped for,” Steinberg said, adding that she thinks that nearly a decade on death row should earn her son release from prison altogether. “Judge Jackson is the first judge to be presented all of the facts, and this was the decision he came back with. It’s huge.”
Alan R. Dial, one of the lead attorneys representing Wolfe, said the government should accept the ruling and end the case.
“We are gratified by the District Court’s thorough and thoughtful review of this case,” Dial said. “Obviously, we agree with Judge Jackson’s opinion, and we are hopeful the commonwealth will accept the court’s decision and move on.”
But Ebert said that he thinks the state will appeal the decision. He said that even if the ruling stands, he would likely go forward with a new trial against Wolfe.
“I see no reason not to try Justin Wolfe again,” Ebert said. “The evidence was clear and convincing to 12 people, and I see no reason it would not be clear and convincing to 12 people again.”
Wolfe was convicted in January 2002 after a trial that featured testimony from numerous people in their late teens and 20s who were involved in a drug ring that distributed millions of dollars of high-grade marijuana in the Northern Virginia suburbs.
Owen M. Barber IV confessed to shooting Petrole 10 times outside his Bristow townhouse in March 2001, and he testified that Wolfe hired him to do it as part of a scheme to erase tens of thousands of dollars in debt.
Barber has recanted that testimony, taken back his recantation and ultimately told Jackson that he originally lied under oath during Wolfe’s trial to evade a death sentence himself. Barber was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 38 years.
Jackson ruled that Barber’s testimony last year — that he lied at trial — was most credible and that prosecutors did not provide enough evidence to defense attorneys to have allowed them to discredit his original version of events. According to Jackson, witnesses told prosecutors that Barber had a direct link to Petrole and owed him money and that others might have wanted to kill Petrole, too.
Wolfe testified at trial that he was part of the drug ring and lived lavishly from its profits — part of a defense strategy to show that it wouldn’t make sense for him to kill his supplier.
Jackson ruled that Wolfe was denied the opportunity to present alternative theories of the killing because he was kept in the dark about a parallel DEA investigation that discovered information about a brewing feud between Petrole and a middleman. Jackson wrote that Petrole had told his girlfriend that he was expecting trouble for cutting the middleman out of a recent lucrative drug deal with a connection in Washington state.
Jackson also found that a potential juror in the case was inappropriately excluded from the panel because he initially said he could not impose a death sentence. That juror later clarified that he might be able to. Virginia law requires jurors to follow court instructions that mandate them to at least consider the death sentence when someone is convicted of a capital crime.