The following press release was issued by the Death Penalty Information Center regarding today’s 4th Circuit decision:

For immediate release
Contact Margot Friedman at 202-332-5550


Virginia Inmate Vindicated After Finding of Prosecutorial Misconduct

WASHINGTON, DC – On August 16, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed a lower court ruling that vacated Justin Wolfe’s conviction and death sentence for a drug-conspiracy murder in Virginia in 2001.  The Court found that the prosecution suppressed important exculpatory evidence.  Wolfe maintained his innocence throughout his incarceration.  He has been on Virginia’s death row since 2002.

“This case demonstrates that the danger of wrongful convictions in death penalty cases continues,” said Richard Dieter, Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC).  “Since 1973, 140 people have been exonerated and freed from death row.  This level of risk of executing the innocent is unacceptable.”

The earlier U.S. District Court ruling concluded that Wolfe had shown he was actually innocent, satisfying applicable Supreme Court precedent, and described the prosecution’s case against Wolfe as tenuous at best: “A review of the trial proceedings unveiled witness testimony replete with hearsay and speculation. The physical evidence that did exist … was circumstantial.”

Wolfe was convicted of conspiracy in the murder of Daniel Petrole, a fellow drug dealer in northern Virginia.  His conviction was based primarily on the testimony of the actual shooter, Owen Barber, who claimed that Wolfe hired him to kill Petrole because of an outstanding debt.  In 2010, Barber testified in open court, subject to cross-examination, that his testimony at Wolfe’s trial was false, and that Wolfe had nothing to do with Petrole’s death.  Barber has also admitted that he agreed to implicate Wolfe in order to avoid the death penalty.

The appeals court cited critical evidence withheld by the prosecution, including that the police advised Barber that he could avoid the death penalty by implicating Wolfe.

The prosecution also failed to disclose statements by Barber’s roommate, Jason Coleman, who said Barber admitted to him that he murdered Petrole and acted alone.  The District Court held, “[T]he substance and nature of the suppressed evidence reasonably undermines the Court’s confidence in this verdict.”

John Partridge, the attorney who represented Wolfe at trial, had his law license revoked shortly after Wolfe’s conviction for mishandling other cases.  Partridge had never handled a capital murder trial before Wolfe’s.

Since the Commonwealth of Virginia has not yet announced its intentions for further action in this case, it would be premature to include Justin Wolfe on DPIC’s Exoneration List.  Inclusion on the list requires that all charges related to the murder be dismissed.  Nevertheless, Wolfe’s case presents a strong case of probable innocence and of official misconduct that could have led to a wrongful execution.

To speak with Richard Dieter, Executive Director of DPIC, about prominent causes of wrongful convictions and other issues related to the death penalty, please contact Elaine de Leon at 202-289-2275 or edeleon@deathpenaltyinfo.org.

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DPIC (www.deathpenaltyinfo.org) is a non-profit organization serving the media and the public with analysis and information on issues concerning capital punishment. DPIC was founded in 1990 and prepares in-depth reports, issues press releases, conducts briefings for the media, and serves as a resource to those working on this issue.