In 2001, aggressive Prince William County prosecutors concealed critical evidence that would have helped Justin Michael Wolfe’s defense against a murder charge. They withheld eight pieces of material evidence, persuaded the real killer to implicate Wolfe to get a lighter sentence, then argued successfully to put 19-year-old Wolfe on death row.
On Thursday, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals documented the behavior by prosecutors and police. The court upheld a federal judge’s decision to vacate Wolfe’s convictions and death sentence.
Rather than seek a rehearing in federal court or a retrial in Prince William County, the state should stop its years-long persecution of Wolfe and set him free.
The judges said it was clear that the only evidence of Wolfe’s involvement in killing marijuana supplier Daniel Petrole was the testimony of drug dealer Owen Barber IV.
A police report, hidden from Wolfe’s attorneys until a judge forced disclosure years later, shows that a detective planted the idea that Barber could finger Wolfe as the one who ordered the killing. In exchange for his testimony, the detective said, Barber – who actually pulled the trigger – might avoid the death penalty.
It’s unconscionable that the public safety officials who are supposed to seek justice on behalf of Virginians have done so much to prevent attorneys, judges, a jury – and the man whose life was on the line – from seeing all the evidence.
Wolfe, now 31, came within two weeks of being executed in 2005. He admitted during his trial that he had sold marijuana, a crime for which he likely would have been sentenced to no more than two years. Instead, he has spent 11 years in prison, most of it on death row.
As his appeals have wound through the system, Prince William County prosecutors have protested having to relinquish evidence they had determined was irrelevant. But as the federal judges said, “it is difficult to take seriously the Commonwealth’s protestations of unfair ambush, when Wolfe had to labor for years from death row to obtain evidence that had been tenaciously concealed by the Commonwealth, and that the prosecution obviously should have disclosed prior to Wolfe’s capital murder trial.”
Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who decides whether to appeal the ruling of the three-judge panel, should decline.
Cuccinelli, whom no one would accuse of being soft on crime, has shown a willingness to go to bat for those wrongly convicted, including Thomas Haynesworth, who was finally released after serving 27 years in prison for rapes he didn’t commit. Cuccinelli should do so in this case, as well.
Prince William County prosecutors still can choose to retry Wolfe, but their behavior in this case should be reason to seek independent counsel to represent the state.
The 11-year hell that Wolfe and his family – and the family of Petrole, who was 21 when he was gunned down – have endured is one more example of why Virginia should stop sentencing people to die. The chance of making an error, of killing an innocent, is too great.