Originally published May 12, 2009, in the Metro section.

A federal appeals court yesterday ordered a judge to reexamine new evidence that a Prince William County man sentenced to death for recruiting a friend to assassinate his drug supplier might be innocent.

In sending the case of Justin Michael Wolfe back to a federal judge in Norfolk, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit said the judge had “prematurely” rejected evidence that Wolfe’s attorneys say proves his innocence in the murder-for-hire scheme. The court said the evidence — including the recantation of the prosecution’s key witness — “strongly suggests” a new hearing might be necessary and said the judge must fully explore it.

But the appellate court declined to order a new hearing and did not reach a conclusion about Wolfe’s case. The Centreville man, then 21, was convicted in 2002 of orchestrating the killing of Daniel Robert Petrole Jr., who was shot nine times as he parked his car in front of his Bristow townhouse. Prosecutors said yesterday that they are confident that Wolfe’s conviction will be upheld.

The March 2001 slaying led to one of the largest drug investigations in the region’s history and spawned a federal inquiry into the ring of young suburban men who were distributing millions of dollars’ worth of high-grade marijuana and the party drug ecstasy throughout Northern Virginia. Yesterday’s decision said Wolfe had distributed more than 100 pounds of marijuana throughout Northern Virginia.

Michele Brace, an attorney for Wolfe, lauded the ruling. “We are pleased with the court’s decision and we look forward to the opportunity to present Justin’s case more fully to the courts,” Brace said.

Prince William Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul B. Ebert, who prosecuted Wolfe and secured a death sentence in the case, said yesterday that it is possible the district court could call for further testimony but that he is convinced it would not change the case’s outcome.

“We feel that the case was a strong one,” Ebert said. “I don’t think there’s any question he’s guilty. It’s common practice to raise any issue they can.” The decision by a three-judge panel returns the case to U.S. District Judge Raymond A. Jackson.

Jurors in Wolfe’s trial in Prince William Circuit Court heard testimony from Owen Merton Barber IV, a friend of Wolfe’s from Chantilly High School and a member of the ring, that Wolfe hired him to shoot Petrole, 21. Barber, who pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 38 years in prison, testified that the slaying was a way for Wolfe to make off with several pounds of marijuana and to erase a debt of nearly $80,000.

But in a 2005 affidavit, Barber said that he had testified falsely and that Wolfe was not involved in Petrole’s murder. A former cellmate of Barber’s at a Virginia state prison also swore in an affidavit that Barber had told him the same thing. In 2006, however, Barber changed his story again and said he had testified truthfully at trial, yesterday’s decision said.