The battle over whether Justin Michael Wolfe, who spent the past 11 years behind bars, should be freed or face another trial in the 2001 slaying of a man outside his Bristow townhouse proceeded in two separate courts last week.
Both hearings centered on the case’s key witness: Owen Merton Barber IV.
Defense attorneys allege in court papers that Prince William County Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul B. Ebert (D) threatened Barber during a visit in September, saying that Ebert warned him that he was in violation of his plea agreement and could face stiff consequences, including the death penalty.
Barber was the key witness against Wolfe in 2002, testifying that he killed Daniel Petrole Jr. in a murder-for-hire plot masterminded by Wolfe. Barber said Wolfe owed Petrole money for drugs as part of a massive suburban marijuana ring.
Wolfe was convicted on capital murder charges and sentenced to death.
Barber later recanted his testimony, then changed his story several times. Based on Barber’s recantation, federal Judge Raymond A. Jackson overturned Wolfe’s conviction and death sentence and sent the case back to Prince William.
During the meeting, Barber told prosecutors to “forget the murder and go for the drugs” in the Wolfe case, court documents say.
Prosecutors said in court documents that allegations of coercion are overblown and that they urged Barber to tell the truth.
The case is being led by a special prosecutor, Raymond Morrogh, the commonwealth’s attorney in Fairfax County.
During Thursday’s federal hearing in Norfolk, Jackson said that prosecutors’ failure to explain their actions could mean Wolfe’s “immediate release and bar current and future prosecutions of Wolfe on all charges related to the death of Danny Petrole and drug conspiracy crimes.”
Jackson is also questioning whether prosecutors complied with his order to either retry Wolfe within 120 days days or unconditionally release Wolfe from prison. Wolfe’s attorneys said during a hearing Thursday that time has run out.
Jackson has not made a ruling.
A state attorney said prosecutors are in compliance because the clock didn’t start until September, after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit issued its mandate sending the case back to state court.
Separately, Judge Mary Grace O’Brien said in Circuit Court on Tuesday that it was too soon to decide whether to bar Barber’s past testimony at Wolfe’s retrial. Defense attorneys said the taint of impropriety from Wolfe’s first trial should ban any of that trial’s testimony from being entered into evidence now.
Whether prosecutors can use Barber as a witness or introduce his old testimony as evidence will likely be key. In 2002, when Wolfe was originally convicted, Ebert said that Barber’s testimony was pivotal.
“But for his testimony, Justin Wolfe never would have been prosecuted,” Ebert said at the time.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.