I grew up in Fairfax County, Virginia, which is largely composed of upper-middle class suburban towns and suburbs. The Justin Wolfe story was one of the biggest stories to hit Northern Virginia in a long time. Full disclosure: I played youth basketball and Little League with Justin. We earned state championship rings together playing football at Chantilly High School. I never really knew him all that well but we certainly knew of each other back in the day. I know ABSOLUTELY NOTHING about the nitty-gritty details of his case, other than what has been reported in the news.
For those of you that don't know the story, Justin was convicted of murder in Virginia for allegedly asking his friend Owen Barber to kill his marijuana supplier Danny Petrole (neither of whom I ever met – even though Barber also graduated from Chantilly). Petrole was the leader of a high-grade “weed ring” in Northern Virginia.....who Justin owed money to. Barber, who was arrested prior to Justin, confessed to the murder, saying he killed Petrole on Justin's orders to get rid of the debt. At Justin's trial in 2002, Barber testified that he killed Petrole at Justin's request. Barber reached a plea deal and was sentenced to 38 years in prison. Justin testified in his own defense, was convicted, and subsequently sentenced to death. At the time, he was 21.
The trial was conducted in Prince William County, which borders Fairfax County to the south. At that time, Justin had claimed that he had nothing to do with Petrole's murder. In 2005, in a 13-page affidavit, Barber recanted his testimony and averred that Justin, in fact, had nothing to do with Petrole's murder. Apparently, the only reason that Barber implicated Justin is because police told him it was the only way to avoid a death sentence himself. This evidence was not disclosed to Justin or his defense team.
Four months later, Barber recanted his recantation, sending a letter to Justin's attorney, claiming that Justin ordered Petrole's murder. He repeated this claim several times over the next few years. However, in 2010, Barber testified in federal court that Justin had nothing to do with Petrole's murder. He also claimed that he felt forced to testify against Justin because the prosecutors would have otherwise pursued the death penalty against him. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Barber later recanted his "re-recantation" and told a Norfolk judge that Justin did not order Petrole's killing.
Eventually, Justin requested a new trial on the basis that the Commonwealth of Virginia suppressed important exculpatory evidence (i.e. Barber's affidavit). The Eastern District of Virginia concluded that Justin 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.” The Eastern District concluded that the Commonwealth could not retry him and ordered his release.
A divided panel of the federal Fourth Circuit reversed the District Court's ruling forbidding the re-trial of Justin but upheld the court's order for his release on the original charges. In 2016, Justin pleaded guilty to felony murder and drug charges. He received a 41-year sentence on those charges. In a handwritten letter to the Petrole family, Justin acknowledged that he was a drug dealer and his role in Petrole's murder.
Afterwards, Justin hired a new lawyer and declared that he only entered his plea because he faced the possibility of another death sentence and concluded that “the Commonwealth was determined to deny him a fair trial” due to prosecutorial vindictiveness. The Virginia Court of Appeals and the Virginia Supreme Court rejected Justin's appeals last year, saying he waived his right to appeal the issue because he pleaded guilty without any conditions allowing for such appeals.
But on January 7, the United States Supreme Court ordered that Virginia give Justin a new hearing on his claim that he was coerced into the plea by vindictive prosecutors in Fairfax and Prince William counties. The high court reaffirmed its holding in a case issued last year (and in prior rulings) that defendants who plead guilty may still file appeals if the conviction violates the Constitution.
I have no idea what will happen with Justin's case. It seems apparent (and everyone seems to agree) that prosecutors withheld critical evidence from his original trial. This is, of course, a big no-no from a constitutional perspectiveand is patently unfair. I also have no idea whether Justin ordered Danny Petrole's killing. I had moved away from home and was matriculating at UVa when all of this went down in Northern Virginia.
But the case underscores an important point: in criminal prosecutions, the state (or in this case, the Commonwealth) has a tremendous amount of power. In order to secure legitimate criminal convictions, the state must (1) use its power with discretion, and (2) play by the rules. If you feel the overwhelming power of the state breathing down your neck and want to make sure that it plays by the rules, make sure to give the Law Office of Alex Kriksciun a call today.