A Prince William County man will again face the possibility of a death sentence, the case’s new prosecutor said at a hearing Friday, despite hopes from his family and attorneys that capital murder charges from more than a decade ago would be put aside in light of a federal court decision vacating his original convictions.
Justin Michael Wolfe, 31, has been behind bars for more than 11 years on charges that he ordered the murder of Daniel Petrole Jr., who was shot numerous times outside his Bristow townhouse in March 2001. Petrole was part of a sprawling marijuana organization that allegedly included Wolfe, and Wolfe allegedly owed Petrole tens of thousands of dollars when Petrole was killed.
On Friday, Circuit Court Judge Mary Grace O’Brien denied a motion to set bond in the case — despite earnest arguments from his attorney that he is not a “flight risk” and that it was unlikely he would be re-tried on capital murder charges.
But the case’s new prosecutor, Ray Morrogh, who had been appointed by O’Brien after Prince William Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul B. Ebert stepped aside, surprised Wolfe’s attorneys by indicating that he would, in fact, pursue the capital murder charges after being appointed to the case 24 hours prior. A trial date was set for October 15.
Wolfe’s attorney, Matthew Engle of the University of Virginia Innocence Project, told O’Brien that he would “imagine Mr. Morrogh hasn’t made up his mind,” and “I think it’s extremely unlikely that this will be able to go forward with capital murder charges.”
But it appeared Morrogh had seen all the evidence he needed to: “It seems clear to me this defendant was absolutely involved in this murder,” Morrogh said.
Re-trying Wolfe could be difficult, as the crime happened more than a decade ago, and police dismantled the drug cartel shortly thereafter. A key witness in the case — Owen Merton Barber IV, who admitted he shot 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, but Barber later recanted that testimony, then said his recantation was false, then testified in federal court that he acted alone.
Prosecutors told jurors at Wolfe’s trial that they did not need to believe Barber to convict Wolfe.
In arguing against setting bond, Morrogh revived many of the arguments made against Wolfe more than a decade ago: saying that Wolfe prayed on children to sell ecstasy and marijuana, and whose life was built around a reputation of being a “kingpin” in a Northern Virginia drug ring.
Engle said some testimony has been rejected by higher courts and that the drug charges alone likely wouldn’t have garnered the 11 years behind bars Wolfe has served. That experience, much of it on death row, offered an ample “scared straight program,” he said. “He is a changed man and this needs to end,” Engle said.
Ebert had asked that Morrogh be appointed in light of a Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit decision that found that Wolfe’s 2002 trial was tainted because Prince William prosecutors failed to turn over evidence that could have been used in his defense.
Wolfe’s attorney said he was not properly served with Ebert’s motion to appoint Morrogh and that the Prince William prosecutor should not be able to hand pick who should take over the case. O’Brien said that Morrogh is qualified and she wanted to move the case along.
Morrogh is a longtime prosecutor who has handled numerous high-profile cases, including the trial of D.C. sniper Lee Boyd Malvo. He recently handled a special prosecution case in Culpeper where murder charges against Michael Wayne Hash, who is about the same age as Wolfe, were dismissed after Morrogh investigated. Hash, a judge ruled, had been wrongly convicted of murder.
But Morrogh said Friday that the two cases have few, if any, parallels. “I can say these cases are not identical in any fashion,” he said.
Wolfe’s family has long maintained his innocence, and Teri Steinberg, his mother, who visibly trembled throughout the hearing, wept outside the courtroom, clutching a picture from the Christian Broadcasting Network, which has been writing letters to Wolfe while he has been kept in solitary confinement.
“It should have turned out different,” she said of the hearing.