Death Penalty

Appeals Court Affirms Vacation of Virginia Man's Conviction, Death Sentence in Murder-For-Hire Case

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A federal appeals court has affirmed a lower court ruling vacating the conviction and death sentence of a Virginia man in a 2001 murder-for-hire scheme.

The lower court found that prosecutors had suppressed evidence and knowingly used false testimony against Justin Wolfe, who has spent 11 years on Virginia’s death row for the murder of fellow drug dealer Daniel Patrole, and Death Penalty Information Center reported.

The Richmond, Va.,-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal, in a 2-1 ruling (PDF) Thursday, said it had concluded that the lower court’s decision “was not marred by any error.”

Wolfe’s conviction was based primarily on the testimony of Patrole’s admitted killer, Owen Barber, who claimed that Wolfe had hired him to kill Patrole over an outstanding debt.

Barber later testified that his testimony at Wolfe’s trial was false, and that Wolfe had nothing to do with Patrole’s killing. Barber has also admitted that he agreed to implicate Wolfe in order to avoid the death penalty.

U.S. District Judge Raymond Jackson threw out Wolfe’s conviction last July, saying the prosecution’s case against him was tenuous, at best. “A review of the trial proceedings unveiled witness testimony replete with hearsay and speculation,” he wrote. “The physical evidence that did exist … was circumstantial.”

The prosecution also failed to disclose to the defense statements by Barber’s roommate, Jason Coleman, who said Barber admitted to him that he murdered Patrole, and had acted alone, the judge said. “The substance and nature of the suppressed evidence reasonably undermines the court’s confidence in this verdict,” Jackson wrote.

In a statement Thursday, Wolfe’s mother, Terri Steinberg said she was “grateful” to the courts for doing justice in Justin’s case. “Justin is innocent. He has spent 11 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. It is time for the commonwealth to stop pursuing this wrongful conviction and for Justin to come home to his family,” she said.

It was unclear Thursday if and when Wolfe will be released from prison. Prosecutors have yet to say whether they intend to retry him.

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