At the trial, one of Partridge’s first witnesses identified Owen Barber and Danny Petrole as regulars at a weekly hip-hop event at a downtown DC club—testimony that dented the prosecution’s claim that Barber hadn’t known Petrole and wouldn’t have killed him without orders from Wolfe.
Another defense witness was Holly Dittoe, a friend of Wolfe’s who happened to be with Petrole’s younger brother, Johnny, in the early morning after Petrole was murdered. When Johnny got a call about his brother’s death, Dittoe phoned Wolfe and relayed the news.
Wolfe was shocked, she testified: “He couldn’t believe it.”
The key to the defense’s case was Wolfe’s testimony, which took almost an entire day. Talking so softly that he repeatedly had to be asked to speak up, Wolfe confessed to drug dealing that netted him about $100,000 a year. He admitted that he owed Petrole money, but no more than usual. Petrole and other suppliers typically “fronted” drugs to other dealers, taking payment only after the marijuana was sold.
Wolfe denied using a gun to collect drug debts, saying he had never even handled one. He said it was the prosecution’s witness, Chad Hough, who had dreamed up robbery schemes. Hough, Partridge would note in his closing statement, was facing drug charges of his own; he put Wolfe at the center of the robbery schemes in an effort to win a better deal from federal prosecutors, the lawyer said.
“I ain’t never hurt nobody in my life,” Wolfe told the jury. “Never.”
He also testified about the cell-phone calls with Barber the night of the murder. Barber, he said, was pestering him to find out exactly when Petrole was going to deliver the drugs and when Barber could pick up his supply. That wasn’t unusual—several of Wolfe’s customers wanted quick pickups of drugs. Only later, Wolfe said, did he realize that Barber had used him to set up Petrole.
Wolfe’s trip to Florida after the murder looked suspicious, and he admitted that he’d left to avoid police—to escape not a murder charge but rather a drug arrest if police traced Petrole’s dope to him.
When police filed an arrest warrant for him for the murder, he shrugged off a friend’s suggestion that he run, Wolfe and the friend both testified. “I might have to do some time on those drugs,” he told the friend, “but I had nothing to do with this murder.”
To the jury, it was obvious that Barber and Wolfe could not both be telling the truth. But neither seemed trustworthy. Juror Tim Lukkarinen told 48 Hours: “If it was Justin against Owen, who could you believe? They’re both thugs; they’re both liars involved with drugs, tied up in greed.”
But other evidence seemed to fit Barber’s story, particularly the cell-phone records from the night of the murder. “The phone records were the clincher—definitely a clincher,” says jury foreman Myles Ganley. “During the course of that night, they were on the phone with each other every five minutes. It was just too much.”
In the end, there was little disagreement among the jurors. After hearing from more than 30 witnesses over just six days of trial, they deliberated for 90 minutes before returning the verdict: Wolfe was guilty on all counts.
When the jurors turned to the matter of Wolfe’s sentence, they agreed to the prosecution’s request for the maximum 30 years on the drug-dealing and firearms charges. Jurors wrestled with how to punish Wolfe for the murder. Several questioned whether Wolfe might be released even if given a life sentence. Twice jurors sent questions to the judge asking for a definition of life imprisonment.
Foreman Myles Ganley says he favored the death penalty from the outset. After a break in the deliberations, he brought in an enlarged photo of his teenage son and placed it next to Petrole’s gruesome autopsy photos. He noted that Barber, while stalking Petrole on the night of the murder, had lost him and briefly followed another Civic.
Says Ganley: “He could have mistaken my son for Danny Petrole.”
Wolfe had no record of violence—not even a schoolyard scrape. But Conway and Ebert had painted him as someone who might reach out from jail to kill again. “He thinks of nobody but himself,” Ebert told the jurors.
They apparently agreed. Ganley later told the Post, “I have visions of this guy sitting on his throne with all these people paying homage to him.”
After the death sentence was announced in the courtroom, Wolfe turned to his mother and said, “Wow, they must really hate me.”
Kill the Golden Goose?
Wolfe’s friends were shocked that the jury could see him as a violent thug. In the five months before the judge affirmed the jury’s death sentence, more than 100 people—including neighbors, classmates, and former coaches—wrote urging him to spare Wolfe. “The Justin Wolfe that I knew was not a violent person,” said a typical letter. “People often took advantage of how generous and nice he was. I cannot think of one time in the past six years that I have known him that he was ever angry, violent or mean.”
Wolfe’s family had thought the murder charge wouldn’t hold up. Partridge, they say, had assured them that nothing linked Wolfe to the murder. At most, he said, he’d get a conviction on the drug-dealing charge and a five-year sentence.
In the weeks before the trial, the family had doubts about Partridge. Wolfe says the lawyer promised to focus everything on the case but was slow to return phone calls and took only a few hours to prepare his client for the witness stand.
“He said he didn’t want me to sound coached,” Wolfe says. “He said, ‘Just go up there and be honest.’ ”
After the trial, Wolfe’s family hired Alexandria attorney Marvin Miller for an appeal. Reading the trial transcripts, Miller—a former president of the Virginia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers—found what he considered glaring mistakes in Partridge’s work. To anyone who knew drug-dealing culture, Miller says, it was impossible to believe that Wolfe had killed Petrole over $80,000 in debts. Wolfe and other Petrole customers regularly ran up bigger tabs. Petrole was also a source of high-grade marijuana that earned Wolfe big money. Why kill the golden goose? A witness with expertise about drug dealing easily could have demonstrated that Wolfe had little reason to want Petrole dead, Miller says.
Before the trial, Wolfe should have pleaded guilty on the drug charges, says Miller, who has done criminal work for 30 years. Then the drug dealing wouldn’t have been at issue in the trial. “That would have gutted 70 to 80 percent of the prosecution’s case,” Miller says. “They spent days painting him as a drug dealer preying on the community. That’s how they got the jury to go for the death penalty.”
Miller also faults Partridge for failing to introduce evidence regarding Wolfe’s language disorder—a nervous tic that causes him to smile and laugh unconsciously. He had therapy for it as a middle-schooler—“I remember I hated it,” Wolfe says, “but my mom made me go”—yet when under pressure, he still grins at inappropriate moments.