A federal judge on Tuesday threw out a drug dealer's murder-for-hire conviction and death sentence in the 2001 slaying of his marijuana supplier in a case that exposed a distribution ring in the wealthy northern Virginia suburbs.
U.S. District Judge Raymond A. Jackson of Norfolk ruled that Justin Michael Wolfe, 29, was wrongfully convicted in the death of 21-year-old Daniel Petrole Jr. in Prince William County. Wolfe claimed that the shooter, Owen Barber IV, acted alone.
Barber was the key prosecution witness in Wolfe's 2002 trial. Barber agreed to plead guilty to first-degree murder and testify against Wolfe in exchange for a life sentence.
Barber recanted his testimony in 2005. Five months later, he again changed his story and said he had testified truthfully at Wolfe's trial. Barber's former roommate and his former cellmate also filed sworn statements saying Barber told them he acted alone in killing Petrole.
Jackson said in his ruling that the state's use of Barber's false testimony was grounds for vacating Wolfe's conviction and sentence. He rejected prosecutors' claims that they did not know Barber's testimony was false at the time.
"They had prior knowledge of falsities in Barber's testimony, yet never pursued or investigated the information," Jackson wrote. "In light of the Commonwealth's conduct, the Commonwealth cannot be entitled to benefit from their deliberate ignorance and/or reckless disregard for the falsities in Barber's testimony."
He also ruled that Wolfe's due process rights were violated when prosecutors withheld information from his attorneys. Jackson listed several pieces of evidence that were suppressed, including recorded witness interviews and a "gentlemen's agreement" not to prosecute one witness in exchange for his cooperation with authorities.
The judge wrote that the actions of Prince William prosecutors were "not only unconstitutional in regards to due process, but abhorrent to the judicial process."
The Virginia attorney general's office could appeal the ruling to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The office did not respond to an inquiry about its plans.
"We're gratified by the district court's thorough and thoughtful opinion," said Brian Meiners, an attorney for Wolfe in Washington, D.C. "We're hopeful the state will accept this determination and move on."
Meiners said attorneys informed Wolfe about the ruling.
"He was very happy and is naturally curious as to what is going to happen next with this case," Meiners said.
Wolfe's mother, Terri Steinberg, said in a telephone interview that she found it frightening that an appeal by the state could drag the case out for several more years.
"We can't really enjoy this until we know for sure that it's over," she said. "Today, we're just trying to enjoy the victory and be glad that somebody finally listened."
According to trial testimony, Wolfe was making $10,000 to $15,000 a month selling high-end marijuana he bought from Petrole. Wolfe had been friends since high school with Barber, who sold lower-grade marijuana.
At the time of Petrole's death, Wolfe owed Petrole about $60,000.
On March 15, 2001, after Petrole delivered the pot to Wolfe, Barber followed Petrole to his home and shot him 10 times as he sat in his car. Barber testified that in exchange for the slaying, Wolfe forgave a $3,000 debt, gave him more than five pounds of marijuana and promised an additional $10,000.
In his affidavit recanting the testimony, Barber said he had intended to confront Petrole but thought he saw him reach for a gun, so he fired. He said he implicated Wolfe to avoid the death penalty.
Associated Press writer Dena Potter contributed to this report.