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An Innocent Man on Virginia’s Death Row?

In March, The Washingtonian examined the 2002 conviction of 20-year-old Justin Wolfe, who was sentenced to death for ordering a gangland-style execution of a Prince William County drug dealer. The story explored new evidence that points to Wolfe’s innocence—including the recantation of courtroom testimony by Owen Barber, the trigger man in the murder and the only witness to directly tie Wolfe to the killing.

The US Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit yesterday (May 11, 2009) ordered a federal district-court judge to reexamine Barber’s recantation. The judge, Raymond A. Jackson of the federal district court for eastern Virginia, previously had dismissed the new evidence in the case, but a three-judge panel found errors in that decision. While the panel did not order Jackson to hold an evidentiary hearing, it noted that Barber’s testimony was key to Wolfe’s prosecution—a fact that it said “strongly suggests” the need for a fresh investigation.
“We are pleased with the court’s opinion and look forward to the opportunity to more fully present Justin’s case to the district court,” says Brian Meiners, a lawyer with the DC office of King & Spalding, which is working pro bono as part of Wolfe’s defense team.

Wolfe was convicted in 2002 of hiring Barber to murder Danny Petrole, a 21-year-old who was kingpin of one of Northern Virginia’s biggest drug rings. Wolfe’s prosecution, which featured tales of drugs and sex among suburban teens, made headlines nationwide. Wolfe, a recent graduate of Chantilly High, was prosecuted by Prince William County Commonwealth Attorney Paul Ebert, one of the country’s most successful prosecutors in capital-murder cases. Read “Who Killed Danny Petrole?” for the story behind the new evidence that’s at the heart of Wolfe’s claim to innocence.

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