The Project recruited King & Spalding in 2005 to represent Virginia death row prisoner Justin Wolfe during his post-conviction proceedings. On July 12, 2011, after six years of extraordinary efforts on Justin’s behalf, King & Spalding secured a reversal of Justin’s conviction and sentence from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. The court ruled that Justin’s constitutional rights were violated in several ways, including denial of his right to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment and denial of his Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury.
Justin was convicted of participating in a “murder-for-hire” scheme. The State argued that Justin hired a man named Owen Barber to kill another man, Daniel Petrole, in connection with a drug deal. Mr. Barber was the prosecution’s main witness, providing the key evidence linking Justin to Mr. Petrole’s death. The State argued that Barber did not know Petrole and that his only possible motive for killing Petrole was his deal with Justin. During their representation, King & Spalding uncovered evidence that the State knew this theory to be false. The State withheld evidence that Barber did in fact have personal dealings with the victim, that Petrole put a “hit” on Barber, and that the two associated socially. The court found that, by withholding this evidence, the State interfered with defense counsel’s impeachment of Barber’s essential testimony. The State also withheld evidence that: 1) a detective told Barber that implicating Justin could mean the difference between execution and life in prison; and 2) Barber told others that he “acted alone” when he killed Petrole.
At a post-conviction evidentiary hearing conducted by King & Spalding, Barber recanted his testimony implicating Justin and admitted that he lied to the jury about Justin’s involvement in order to avoid the death penalty for his own involvement in the crime. The court found that the prosecution’s use of Barber’s false testimony was grounds for habeas relief. In addition to overturning Justin’s conviction and sentence, the court strongly condemned the State’s behavior in Justin’s case, saying “[t]he Court finds these actions not only unconstitutional in regards to due process, but abhorrent to the judicial process.”