RICHMOND — Thirty-four high-profile former judges, state attorneys general and law enforcement officials — including the former chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court — are arguing against Virginia’s effort to reinstate the death sentence of a Northern Virginia man widely believed to have been wrongfully sentenced in a murder-for-hire scheme.
Justin Wolfe of Chantilly was convicted and sentenced to death in 2002 in a scheme that resulted in Owen Barber killing Mr. Wolfe’s marijuana supplier, Danny Petrole. The killing exposed the existence of a widespread drug ring supplying Northern Virginia.
But in 2005, Barber recanted testimony that Wolfe had hired him to kill Petrole for $13,000 in cash and drugs and signed a sworn affidavit saying he lied to avoid the death penalty after his own conviction.
“The prosecution and my own defense attorney placed me in a position in which I felt that I had to chose between falsely testifying against Justin or dying,” Barber said in the sworn statement.
“Justin does not deserve to die for something he did not do,” Barber wrote. “I am not angry at him anymore and I feel bad about the fact that an innocent man is on death row.”
But five months after that statement, he again changed his story and said he had testified truthfully at the trial.
In February 2010, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Mr. Wolfe’s claims of innocence weren’t properly considered and he won an evidentiary hearing in U.S. District Court in November 2010.
Jason Coleman, Barber’s roommate, testified in district court that he spoke with Barber after the killing and that Barber conceded he had acted alone. Mr. Coleman also said that was what he had told prosecutors.
State officials maintain that they were not told, or do not recall being told, about such a statement, and criticized the district court for “reject[ing] the state officials’ testimony in favor of admitted liars and drug dealers.”
The judge said that regardless of whether the failure to disclose such an agreement was intentional or unintentional it warranted overturning Mr. Wolfe’s conviction.
The state has appealed the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit to have the death sentence and conviction reinstated.
The collection of officials urging the appeals court to affirm the district court’s ruling includes J. Joseph Curran Jr., who served as attorney general of Maryland from 1987 to 2007 and as the state’s lieutenant governor from 1983 to 1987; former attorneys general from Tennessee and New Jersey, and Gerald Kogan, the former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Florida.
They recently filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the appeals court saying that, despite the favorable outcome in district court, the prosecution had suppressed key evidence — that Barber changed his story. They also said that the prosecution failed to disclose that the police had made an informal agreement with Barber that if he testified against Mr. Wolfe, he could avoid the death penalty.
“Under that agreement, Barber could avoid the death penalty by implicating a ‘higher up,’ ” they wrote. “Before Barber ever mentioned Wolfe’s name, police suggested to Barber that Wolfe was the ‘higher up.’ “
Oral argument for the case has been scheduled for May 17.