Virginia Rebuked For “Abhorrent” Actions In Death Penalty Case

Justin Wolfe

Justin Wolfe

Owen Barber shot Daniel Petrole to death in Bristow, Virginia on March 15, 2001. Barber was convicted of murder and got a sentence of 60 years. In 2002, Justin Wolfe was sent to Virginia’s death row for paying Barber to kill Petrole. But did he?

Federal courts have examined Wolfe’s murder-for-hire conviction and thrown it out, with unusually strong words for Virginia officials:

“The Court finds these actions not only unconstitutional in regards to due process, but abhorrent to the judicial process.”

The problems?

  1. It was police who suggested to Owen Barber, while threatening him with the death penalty, that he name Justin Wolfe.
  2. After these capital punishment threats, Owen Barber did say that Wolfe hired him for the killing, but then recanted afterwards.
  3. Barber’s testimony was the only direct evidence linking Wolfe to the crime.
  4. The prosecution “knowingly presented false testimony by Barber.”
  5. The police report that included the death penalty threats and suggestions to name Wolfe was never turned over to Wolfe’s defense.

Suppressing evidence relevant to the defense is known as a Brady violation, named after the Supreme Court case that required prosecutors to disclose such information. Virginia prosecutors committed a bunch of Brady violations in this case – courts found that they withheld “eight items or groups of favorable and material evidence.”

Courts also ruled that this withholding was “entirely intentional.”

Now the rebuked prosecutors will have to decide whether to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court or retry Justin Wolfe, despite the fact that their murder case has fallen apart.

While we’re here, there is one other important issue to address. Owen Barber fingered Justin Wolfe, at the suggestion of the police, after being threatened with execution. The use of death penalty threats to coerce information or confessions (aka, as a “bargaining chip”) is sometimes touted as a reason to support capital punishment.

But in this case (and many others), threatening a witness with death led to something that in no way resembles justice.

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9 thoughts on “Virginia Rebuked For “Abhorrent” Actions In Death Penalty Case

  1. I do agree, (for once) with Mr. Evans that such prosecutorial misconduct is unacceptable and I am certain that the prosecuting team was internally harshly reprimanded as well as humiliated by the court's ruling. Does this incident, however, require that the death penalty in Virginia be abolished? I disagree. Can we place restrictions on the SA office, oversight, and harsher punishment should misconduct occur! Yes, we can.

    The only question to be asked here is whether both of these men, Barber and ultimately Wolfe, were equally culpable. The resounding answer is YES, YES , YES…

  2. Now you point to a case — that from your perspective the system WORKED — and use it to argue abolishment? Justin Wolfe walks cause of the system of checks and balances. Owen Barber is serving a 60 year sentence – for a crime he was without any doubt guilty of committing. I don't know all the facts – but as you presented them – these prosecutors have essentially ended their own careers and will be lucky if they don't have law licenses/bars removed if they haven't already had that happen.

  3. Did this comment concern me or Mr. Evans, Brian? I ask because in my comment I specifically state that I disagree that this incident in Virginia requires the death penalty to be abolished and that SA office needs stricter oversight… I quote from my comment "Does this incident, however, require that the death penalty in Virginia be abolished? I disagree." I am your side Brian, just read my comments closer please.

  4. No TR – based on your comments I've read on this and other related issues you and I are on the same page 99%. I'm referring to the article itself – not any of the comments.

  5. Virginians Against the DP posted this good news today:

    ORDER ENFORCING JUDGMENT, directing that the Commonwealth of Virginia release Justin Michael Wolfe unconditionally, free of all criminal proceedings on the charge of murder for hire of Danny Petrole and the drug charges that were previously tried in state court by the Commonwealth, within ten (10) days of the entry of this order; directing that the Commonwealth of Virginia is hereby barred from reprosecuting the Petitioner on the charges originally tried herein in state court or any other charges stemming from death of Danny Petrole which requires the testimony of Owen Barber in any form.

    – Signed by U.S. District Judge Raymond A. Jackson; filed 12/26/12

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