After 15 years of denial, a northern Virginia drug dealer admitted his role in a 2001 murder as part of a plea bargain that spares him a possible death sentence.
Justin Wolfe's guilty plea Tuesday in Prince William Circuit Court ended a long-running saga which at one point left him only five days away from a scheduled execution. At another point, he was only hours from being set free by a judge who accused prosecutors of misconduct.
Wolfe's plea will result in 29 to 41 years in prison when he is sentenced in July, the Washington Post reported. He will get credit for the 15 years he has already served.
Wolfe and an associate, Owen Barber, were still in their teens when they ran a large-scale drug operation selling high-grade marijuana throughout northern Virginia, frequently to high school students. Wolfe was convicted and sent to death row in 2002 for the murder of his supplier, Daniel Petrole. Barber was key witness at that trial, saying he pulled the trigger after conspiring with Wolfe because of a large debt owed to Petrole.
Barber's testimony came as part of a plea bargain that resulted in a 38-year prison sentence for him.
Barber later recanted his testimony and eventually flip-flopped multiple times on whether Wolfe was involved in the killing. In a recorded conversation with prosecutors, Barber indicated he was unhappy that he ended up with such a lengthy sentence.
While Wolfe was on death row, U.S. District Judge Raymond A. Jackson in Norfolk heard an appeal of Wolfe's case. Jackson accused prosecutors of withholding evidence from Wolfe's lawyers, and overturned his convictions. Jackson said the misconduct was so bad that Wolfe could not get a fair trial, and he ordered that Wolfe be set free.
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Eventually, a federal appeals court intervened, and in a split decision it allowed prosecutors to conduct a retrial.
Prince William County Commonwealth's Attorney Paul Ebert, who has served in that office for almost 50 years, recused himself in the retrial, given the accusations of misconduct. Fairfax County prosecutor Raymond Morrogh agreed to prosecute the retrial and also decided to file capital murder charges.
Morrogh agreed to Tuesday's plea bargain, saying he did so after consulting with Petrole's family and obtaining a four-page confession from Wolfe.
The Petroles “were interested in bringing the case to a conclusion. They were really interested in him admitting what he did,” Morrogh told the Post.
Wolfe's case attracted the support of The Innocence Project at The University of Virginia School of Law and others who rallied to his cause. He wrote in his confession that acknowledging the murder is “the hardest thing I have ever done because it means I have to admit what I did which contradicts what I said at trial and the position that I have taken for all of my appeals and I am very afraid that I will let the people I love down.”