A pro bono team at King & Spalding LLP has secured another victory for their client, Justin Wolfe. On August 16, 2012, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed a district court ruling which overturned Mr. Wolfe’s conviction and sentence. The State must now decide whether to retry Mr. Wolfe in the face of highly questionable evidence or set him free after 11 years of incarceration on Virginia’s death row.
Mr. Wolfe was convicted of hiring another man, Owen Barber, to kill Daniel Petrole, Jr. Mr. Wolfe was unquestionably not the person who actually killed Mr. Petrole, and the only evidence against Mr. Wolfe was Mr. Barber’s testimony. Mr. Barber now says that he was coerced into implicating Mr. Wolfe to avoid receiving the death penalty himself and that Mr. Wolfe was not involved in the killing.
In a stunning decision, the District Court found, and the Fourth Circuit affirmed, that the State intentionally withheld evidence showing that police told Mr. Barber to implicate Mr. Wolfe in the crime. The courts found that this misconduct violated Mr. Wolfe’s constitutional rights under Brady v. Maryland. The Fourth Circuit repeated the District Court’s stern criticism of the State’s actions in this case: “The Court finds these actions not only unconstitutional in regards to due process, but abhorrent to the judicial process.”
This is the second time that this office has been admonished by the Fourth Circuit for failing to disclose material information to the defense. In 2009, in the John Allen Muhammad case, the court warned Prince William County prosecutors that they should “err on the side of disclosure, especially when a defendant is facing the specter of execution.” Three years later in Mr. Wolfe’s case, the court noted a “pattern of conduct” by the prosecutor’s office and said that it “sincerely hope[s] that the Commonwealth’s Attorney and his assistants have finally taken heed of [the court’s] rebukes.”
Thanks to the diligent work of King & Spalding and Michele Brace of the Virginia Capital Representation Resource Center, a serious miscarriage of justice has been corrected.