For much of the past 15 years, Justin Wolfe was both a death row inmate and a cause célèbre. His supporters, as well as a federal judge who heard his appeal, believed he was a victim of malicious prosecutors who covered up the truth in an effort to execute an innocent man.
Now Wolfe's 15-year legal saga, which at one point had him days from execution and later on the brink of total exoneration and freedom, has concluded with a 41-year prison sentence and an admission that prosecutors had it right all along.
The sentence Wolfe received Wednesday from Judge Carroll Weimer was the maximum possible under a plea agreement requiring a sentence ranging from 29 to 41 years.
After years of denying responsibility for the 2001 murder of Daniel Petrole, Wolfe on Wednesday apologized to Petrole's family in a packed Manassas courtroom.
“I understand all the pain and suffering I caused,” he said, looking directly at Petrole's family. “I know an apology is not enough, but I'm sorry.”
Wolfe was just 19 in March 2001 when he was a top dog in a suburban drug ring. He conspired with another man, Owen Barber, to kill his supplier, 21-year-old Daniel Petrole, to get out of a $66,000 debt Wolfe owed Petrole, who was shot nine times.
Barber struck a plea deal and testified against Wolfe, who was convicted in 2002 and sentenced to death.
Wolfe acknowledged he was a drug dealer, but denied any role in Petrole's murder.
In his appeals, Wolfe's lawyers accused prosecutors of withholding evidence that could have exonerated Wolfe.
The U.Va. Innocence Project took up Wolfe's cause and helped convince Barber to recant his testimony.
A federal judge, U.S. District Judge Raymond Jackson in Norfolk, vacated Wolfe's death sentence and ordered a new trial. Later, when Jackson determined that prosecutors had, in his view, engaged in further misconduct by approaching Barber and trying to convince him adopt his original testimony implicating Wolfe, Jackson declared the case irretrievably tainted. He barred prosecutors from retrying the case.
But the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond allowed a retrial.
For the retrial, Prince William County Commonwealth's Attorney Paul Ebert recused himself, and Fairfax County prosecutor Ray Morrogh was brought in.
Morrogh re-investigated the case and found implausible some of the defense theories that implicated a third person. He secured a plea deal that took the death penalty off the table, but included a requirement sought by the Petrole family requiring Wolfe to admit in his own words what he did.
Wolfe wrote the judge ahead of Wednesday's sentencing that any violent inclinations he once had are extinguished.
“Being on death row I've seen plenty of death and the pain it causes everyone. I've seen the look in many men's eyes as they are walked off to be killed, knowing what was coming,” his letter stated.
Morrogh said the case wrongly impugned the ethics of Ebert, who has been commonwealth's attorney in Prince William County for almost 50 years. Morrogh said it was Wolfe's appellate lawyers at the Innocence Project who acted irresponsibly.
“It's sad that they tried to put the blame (for Petrole's death) on an innocent person,” Morrogh said of Wolfe's appellate lawyers. “This defense was concocted in the imagination of some law students.”
Forgotten in the years of legal wrangling was the shocking nature of the drug ring Wolfe and his teenage accomplices ran throughout northern Virginia. Authorities estimated Wolfe and the other dealers may have sold $10 million worth of marijuana and ecstasy before being caught.
Wolfe and his accomplices blew thousands of dollars on D.C. nightclubs, trips to Hawaii and gambling jaunts to Atlantic City while maintaining a veneer of everyday, suburban teenage life. Wolfe even dated the daughter of a Drug Enforcement Agency agent for a time.
Petrole's father, a retired Secret Service agent, testified Wednesday about his son. He said he was disappointed to learn his son had been dealing drugs but that he was a good person who would have led a productive life if given a chance.
He said he has forgiven Wolfe and is grateful he finally confessed, but said the years of lies about Wolfe's innocence took a toll.
“We had to listen ... to all this talk about ‘poor Justin,’” he said. “It's just a continuing hurt.”