Before Prince William County prosecutors made headlines in the Beltway sniper case, they helped send former Chantilly High School football player Justin Wolfe to Virginia's death row for the March 2001 murder of Danny Petrole, a community college student and the son of a retired Secret Service agent. Petrole was also the kingpin of one of the largest drug rings ever uncovered in Northern Virginia.
But now a federal judge in Norfolk has ordered Wolfe's release, raising disturbing questions about prosecutorial misconduct in capital cases.
In 2011, U.S. District Judge Raymond Jackson overturned Wolfe's conviction, ruling that prosecutors wrongly withheld exonerating evidence. Last August, a three-judge appellate panel agreed.
A Prince William jury had convicted Wolfe primarily on the testimony of Owen Barber, who admitted he shot Petrole in front of his newly purchased Bristow townhouse. Barber later confessed to a cellmate that he had lied to the jury.
In a sworn 13-page affidavit dated Oct. 28, 2005, Barber said he was offered a plea bargain that allowed him to avoid the death penalty himself if he falsely testified that Wolfe hired him to kill Petrole: "Justin had nothing to do with the killing ... I lied and implicated Justin because I felt that I had no other choice. The prosecution and my own defense attorney placed me in a position in which I felt I had to choose between falsely testifying against Justin or dying."
Barber added that detectives and prosecutors "kept trying to get me to provide them with proof of an agreement or a deal between Justin and myself for murder. It was like they were beating a drum." As a result of the plea bargain, the actual triggerman was sentenced to 38 years in prison and 15 years probation. Wolfe got the death penalty.
The appellate court gave prosecutors 120 days to retry Wolfe. On Dec. 27, Judge Jackson ruled that the deadline had passed and ordered him released within 10 days. Capital punishment cases are not supposed to end this way. It goes without saying that the deliberate withholding of exonerating evidence and improper pressuring of witnesses is a gross violation of a defendant's constitutional rights, especially when their lives are on the line.
In Wolfe's case, Prince William fell far short of acceptable prosecutorial standards. Disciplinary action should be taken against all involved in this shocking miscarriage of justice.