EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Thursday, April 21, 2016

A Brief Look at the Justin Wolfe Case

In a comment to yesterday's post, "Gavin" asked me to touch upon the Justin Wolfe case. Serial listeners might recall that this case was mentioned in Episode 7 of Season 1. Specifically, Adnan mentioned the Wolfe case to Sarah Koenig, "kind of in passing," prompting Koenig to track down Deirdre Enright, who had worked on his appeal.

It's tough to distill the Justin Wolfe case into a single post, factually or legally speaking. Therefore, I will just focus on one particular aspect.

According to the State's theory of the case, Justin Wolfe,

then a nineteen-year-old marijuana dealer in northern Virginia, hired his close friend and fellow drug dealer Owen Barber IV to murder drug supplier Daniel Petrole in March 2001....Significantly, “Barber was the prosecution's key witness,” in that he was “the only witness to provide any direct evidence regarding the ‘for hire’ element of the murder offense and the involvement of Wolfe therein.”...In exchange for Barber's testimony that he was Wolfe's hired triggerman, the Commonwealth dismissed its capital murder charge against Barber, and he pleaded guilty to non-capital murder. Barber was sentenced to sixty years in prison, of which twenty-two years were suspended

The State claimed that Wolfe had motive in the form of, inter alia, a significant drug debt to Petrole while Barber had none, the latter claim somewhat belied by evidence the State failed to turn over to the defense. The State also failed to disclose a report created by Prince William County Detective Newsome, who said

I told Barber that we knew he had killed Petrole and had a very strong case against him. But that as far as we knew he had no personal problem with Daniel Petrole but that he had killed him for someone else and we believed that person was Justin Wolfe. I explained to him that we needed the information that he had in order to arrest Wolfe. I explained again that we had a very strong case against him (Barber) and that we could stop there but that would not be right since we knew it was someone else [sic] idea. I told him that he was potentially facing a capitol [sic] murder charge in this case and that he needed to help himself. He asked me, “What do I get out of it if I tell you who the other person, the higher up, is”. I told him I could not make any promises to him, but that the Commonwealth might entertain the idea of not charging him with Capitol [sic] Murder, or that they may be willing to make a recommendation as to his sentence.

Again Barber asked about discovery and I again explained it to him. He then said, What do I get out it [sic] if I name the “higher up”. I told him that was one of his problems; that his case was so tight he really had very little to offer us. I told him it could simply be the difference between Capitol [sic] murder or First Degree, execution or life in prison, or that the Commonwealth may be willing to make a recommendation in sentencing after speaking to his attorney. I told him again that the Commonwealth's Attorney would make these decisions and that I could not promise him anything. I pointed out that at this point he would do more good than harm for himself by cooperating with us.

This report raised the specter of Barber (who indisputably killed Petrole) falsely implicating Wolfe, and it led to Wolfe being granted a new trial based upon the clear Brady violation.

The idea that Barber falsely implicated Wolfe was partially bolstered by a 13-page December 2005 affidavit, in which Barber recanted his testimony against Wolfe, stating that,

"Justin [Wolfe] had nothing to do with the killing of Daniel Petrole. There was no agreement between Justin and me to kill Danny Petrole. I did not have any discussion, at any time, with Justin about killing Danny Petrole. I lied and implicated Justin because I felt I had no choice."

But then, in April 2006, after learning that Wolfe's legal team would take his recantation public, Barber 

Dear Katie,

I am writing to you because my conscience has been bothering me greatly. The statement I made to you and Bob on 12/14/05 is false. I am sorry I have wasted your time. The truth was allready told by me when I testified in court at Justins trial. I wish I could help Justin, but lieing is not the way. Once again, my appologies. Please do not see me anymore. Also tell Bob I am truely sorry. I have made a carbon copy of this letter.

Sorry, Owen Barber

So, which version was correct? Did Barber falsely implicate Wolfe, or was it his recantation that was false?

The State might have had similar questions, which would explain why it failed to comply with the retry-or-release order that was entered after Wolfe's convictions were tossed. Based on this noncompliance, a federal district court ordered Wolfe released and "proscribed the Commonwealth 'from reprosecuting [Wolfe] on the charges originally tried herein in state court or any other charges stemming from [the] death of Danny Petrole which requires the testimony of Owen Barber in any form.'"

A majority of the Fourth Circuit panel that heard the Commonwealth's appeal reversed, concluding that the State could retry Wolfe despite missing its deadline. Judge Thacker, however, dissented, concluding that Barber's

testimony will be forever shadowed by the manipulative actions of  the Original Prosecuting Team: the Commonwealth threatened Barber with being charged with capital murder for breaching his plea agreement and raised the specters of God and Barber's deceased mother in attempt to coerce him into testifying to “the truth,” a.k.a., the Commonwealth's moniker for its version of the facts....It is the Commonwealth alone that now holds the fate of the crucial Barber testimony (and thus, Wolfe's fate) in its grip. They alone can grant immunity (or not) in order to compel Barber's testimony. Yet, it is clear from the actions and statements of the Commonwealth prosecutors that the only testimony they are interested in compelling is that which would implicate Wolfe.

Faced with the possibility of a new murder trial and a new death sentence, Wolfe entered into a plea deal a few weeks ago.

Wolfe pleaded guilty to a charge of first-degree felony murder, use of a firearm, and a drug charge, part of an agreement with prosecutors that will allow a judge to sentence him to a range of 29 to 41 years in prison. He will get credit for the 15 years he already has served.

As part of that deal, Wolfe executed a four-page handwritten statement admitting to his role in Petrole's murder; that statement concluded with him saying to Petrole's parents, "I am sorry for what I did to your son."

Is Wolfe's statement the truth or a way to avoid dying in prison, possibly from a lethal cocktail of drugs? I have no idea. Why did Barber recant, and then why did he recant his recantation? I also have no idea.



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Why did he plea? I don't understand that. He has at least two federal judges who think there is no case against him. So if I'm his attorney I've got to like my chances with a jury.

Posted by: Daniel | Apr 21, 2016 12:31:06 PM

If you're his attorney, you have nothing to lose. What if you're him?

Posted by: carnotbrown | Apr 21, 2016 1:04:38 PM

Daniel: He could be pleading because he is actually guilty and finally wants to tell the truth. What if he’s innocent? After a new trial, he could be found “not guilty,” but he could also be convicted and get the death penalty or life without parole.

Under his plea deal, he gets between 29 and 41 years incarceration, with 15 years sentencing credit. Given his 4-page statement, his age at the time of the crime, the State’s misconduct, etc., I’m betting he gets a sentence at the low end of that range. Let’s put that number at 32 years. In Virginia, defendants are eligible for parole after serving 85% of their sentences, although there is currently a debate about lowering that percentage. At the current percentage, Wolfe would be eligible for parole about 12 years for now. There’s a decent chance that parole reform and/or a lighter sentence could result in his release in less than a decade. Wolfe is about 34 now

If you were an innocent 34 year-old in Wolfe’s shoes, would you accept that deal? I don’t know.

Posted by: Colin | Apr 21, 2016 1:19:18 PM

I know somebody who is friends with Wolfe (they were in HS together) and my understanding is exactly as you said - he plead b/c if he hadn't he'd likely be facing the exact same trial as he previously had. Virginia was fighting hard to use Barber's original statements (despite the fact that he had recanted) and his defense wasn't going to be able to bring up any of the prosecutorial misconduct. This was the only way he was guaranteed to get out at some point and not get put back on death row or sentenced to life in prison.

Posted by: Amber | Apr 22, 2016 6:21:22 AM

Why is the Judge in Adnan's case taking so long to issue a ruling. How long do you think this ruling will take?

Posted by: Sandie | Apr 22, 2016 6:39:53 AM

Hey Colin,
Thanks for touch on Wolfe’s plea deal, it seems Justin Wolfe may have taken the deal to avoid life in prison or worse. As you mention, Paul Ebert, the PWC commonwealth attorney who first tried Wolfe – had a “clear Brady violation” when he withheld Barber’s testimony from the defense. I grew in PWC so this case has always been fresh in my mind.
I think you will find this article interesting as well, it involves the Innocence Project getting another Virginia man out of prison, and it mentions Wolfe & Ebert:

Posted by: Gavin | Apr 22, 2016 7:20:26 AM

If I conspired with others and attempted to have a "hit" put on someone else, I think that I would be prosecuted if caught. This has been a real learning experience. Thanks, now I know how to do it and get away with it. First, become a cop or a prosecutor. Then....


Posted by: Guido | Apr 22, 2016 9:02:45 AM


You are correct that I'm not him. But here is the way i see it. First, it simply isn't true that he faces the exact same trial as he did before. The first time around, one doesn't know how strong one's case is because one hasn't seen the other side of the coin. But this time around, he has. Moreover, he knows that at least some intelligent observers who have seen the whole case against him think it has no legs. So he and his attorney are in a far superior informational position than they were the first time around.

The second point is philosophical. Namely, that if people keep submitting to prosecutor intimidation then the prosecutor has no reason to stop intimidating because his intimidation is working. So sooner or later someone one has to stand up to the man. If I am the prosecutor's office in the this case what disincentive do I have not to commit misconduct again? Because one way or the other I got my man. By his plea he made my misconduct a legal nullity.

Now, to be sure, it is easy for me to make these statements from the comfort of my own computer--it's not the same visceral reality for me as it is for him. So I'm not trying to second guess--it's his life not mine. I just hope that his attorney presented to him the whole picture so that he could make a fully informed choice.

Posted by: Daniel | Apr 24, 2016 10:53:08 AM

I knew Justin, Owen, and Danny back in high school.
Owen is bat shit crazy. I believe Justin is innocent. This is all just a damn shame. Danny was a kind soul.
Owen should of gotten the death penalty or life. It's a scary thought knowing he will be out of prison one day. : /

Posted by: Tami | Jul 21, 2016 7:07:58 AM

He's innocent and those sociopathic prosecutors probably tortured and threatened him to plead guilty.

Posted by: Morgan | Oct 17, 2016 3:59:46 PM

Justin is innocent. The letter he wrote admitting to guilt was something he was made to do. The prosecution team and their associates forced Justin/ told Justin what to write. The prosecutor and company are mobsters themselves. Ecstasy trade and the Israeli mob are to blame for Danny’s murder

Posted by: Morgan | Aug 22, 2018 1:24:43 PM

if someone can get me in touch with Justin's Lawyer I have some help I can lend

Posted by: Joseph Perry Jr | Mar 25, 2020 5:29:06 AM

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