Update July 12, 2011: The death sentence of Northern Virginia native Justin Wolfe has been overturned by the US District Court in Norfolk. Below is a story from the February 2009 issue of the Washingtonian.
Read an update to this story here.
Justin Wolfe is brought in shackles to a visitation room at Virginia’s Sussex state prison, about 20 miles southeast of Petersburg. Glass scratched with tic-tac-toe games separates inmates from visitors.
“I’m a dangerous guy, you know,” he says with a smile.
In January 2002, nearly two months before his 21st birthday, Justin Wolfe was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. He arrived at Sussex as the state’s youngest death-row inmate. His face, as round and smooth as it was in his Chantilly High School graduation photos, still might get him carded at a bar.
The murder victim was 21-year-old Daniel Petrole Jr., a 1998 graduate of Centreville High, a student at Northern Virginia Community College, and a delivery man for a Herndon florist. On the night of March 15, 2001, Petrole was gunned down in his car on a cul-de-sac near Manassas, where he had just bought a three-story brick townhouse.
In Petrole’s car and house after his death, police found $140,000 in cash and 46 pounds of marijuana worth some $200,000 on the street. Petrole, authorities soon learned, was the kingpin in one of Northern Virginia’s biggest drug rings, moving half a million dollars’ worth of dope every month. The son of a retired Secret Service agent who had guarded Presidents Carter and Reagan, Petrole was clearing more than $100,000 a month, yet he led a double life so convincing that his parents had put up $10,000 to help him buy the townhouse.
Prince William County commonwealth’s attorney Paul Ebert, who has sent more people to death row than any other prosecutor in Virginia, handled the murder. At trial, Ebert and his team claimed that Justin Wolfe was a lieutenant in Petrole’s drug operation who, owing Petrole more than $80,000, had hired a friend to kill him. Wolfe, they told jurors, was a violent drug lord who had ordered the hit as if Petrole were “a bug on a windshield,” then celebrated at a Dom Pérignon–fueled bash at a DC nightclub. Drugs lead to greed, they said, and greed leads to murder.
The jury returned a guilty verdict in less than two hours, then handed down a death sentence in just five.
Seven years later, Justin Wolfe hopes to do what is rarely done in Virginia: win a death-penalty appeal. Courts in Virginia are the least likely in the country to reverse a capital conviction or sentence. Barring DNA proof, a governor’s clemency, or a legal miracle, a death sentence in Virginia is final.
There’s no DNA evidence in Wolfe’s case, but he and his lawyers argue that a miracle, or at least Governor Tim Kaine’s intervention, is warranted. Not long after Wolfe’s conviction, the law license of his trial attorney, John Partridge, was revoked. Hired on the recommendation of a stripper, Partridge had never handled a capital-murder trial. Jurors called him Mr. Potato Head. In the sentencing phase, he turned the case over to an associate who’d had her law license for one year. It was her first time in front of a jury.
New facts also have surfaced contradicting key testimony. Most compelling are revelations from Owen Barber, the 21-year-old gunman who confessed to killing Petrole. Barber was the prosecution’s star witness—the only witness to tie Justin Wolfe directly to a murder-for-hire scheme. Without Barber’s testimony, Ebert told reporters at the time, “Justin Wolfe never would have been prosecuted.”
But in a sworn affidavit filed nearly four years after the trial, Barber said Wolfe was not involved in the murder. There was no arrangement to kill Petrole, he said; Wolfe knew nothing and paid him nothing. Barber said he had fingered Wolfe chiefly to avoid the death penalty himself.
“Justin had nothing to do with the killing,” he said in the affidavit.
Barber has since disavowed his recantation. And coming from a confessed killer and now a confessed liar, it might be easy to dismiss. But the affidavit, with other facts uncovered after the trial, seem to raise enough doubt to warrant a second look at Wolfe’s conviction. Several jurors now say they suspected during the trial that the full story of the murder wasn’t being told.
The courts, however, can consider only the story told at trial. Procedural rules in Virginia set high hurdles for introducing new evidence or fresh claims of innocence—rules that help make the state the fastest in the country to move death-row offenders from sentencing to execution. To win a new trial or even a hearing to consider the new evidence, it’s not enough for Wolfe to raise doubts about his conviction. For all intents and purposes, the courts must be persuaded that he is innocent.
So far, they haven’t been. Twice judges have dismissed Barber’s recantation on procedural grounds, ruling that it was too little, too late. Wolfe, whose legal appeals are nearly exhausted, could be executed by summer.
As he talks about the twists in his case, Wolfe’s words spill out in a rush. “It’s crazy,” he says. “It’s just crazy.”