Death row inmate Justin Michael Wolfe of Chantilly will get another chance to present evidence to further his claims he didn't order the cold-blooded 2001 slaying of drug dealer Daniel Robert Petrole Jr.
A federal court ruling last month opens the door for new hearings about evidence in the 10-year-old case that Wolfe's defense attorneys believe could clear him of his murder-for-hire conviction or force a new trial.
Wolfe, 28, a 1999 graduate of Chantilly High School, was convicted of ordering the killing of Petrole.
The slaying exposed a massive drug ring that supplied a large segment of the Northern Virginia region with high-grade marijuana. Petrole sat atop the regional ring, supplying Wolfe and others with multiple pounds of marijuana on a regular basis, according to testimony at the trial.
A Prince William County jury convicted Wolfe primarily on the words of another former Chantilly student, Owen Merton Barber IV.
Barber admitted killing Petrole but in December 2005, in a 13-page affidavit, he recanted his claim that Wolfe ordered the murder.
Barber, who has told multiple versions of the events of the killing, has since reverted to his testimony during a trial that Wolfe ordered the slaying.
Last month's order from U.S. Eastern District Court of Virginia for a new evidentiary hearing clears the way for material not presented in court, including evidence the defense believes was withheld that could have benefitted Wolfe, such as recordings of interviews with witnesses, as well as Barber's affidavit.
"It sounds good," said Wolfe, who responded briefly to questions early this month, regarding the importance placed on that affidavit. "That's what I've been waiting for. I thought I was out of here five years ago when Owen [Barber] confessed."
Wolfe's defense team was not ready to disclose their strategy for the hearing, yet to be scheduled.
"We certainly view the order as a positive development because it marks a first step toward getting a new trial for Justin," said Brian Meiners, among the attorneys at the King & Spalding law firm who are representing Wolfe pro bono along with Washington, D.C., attorney Michele Brace.
The Feb. 4 court order stated Barber's 2005 affidavit carries more credibility than his other post-trial assertions that Wolfe was involved.
Contrary to the prosecutions assertion that the 2005 affidavit was obtained through coercion, the order, signed by District Judge Raymond A. Jackson, reads:
"Unlike most recantations, Barber does not escape liability or improve his own situation by his recantation; rather, it is decidedly against his interest as he would face additional punishment. The 2006 and 2009 rescission statements, on the other hand, only further Barber's interest by removing the possibility of that additional punishment. "
"What the court finally recognized is that Owen Barber had no incentive to give that affidavit," said Jon Sheldon, a defense attorney who formerly represented Wolfe. "I'm very hopeful for Justin."
Barber gunned down Petrole after stalking him for more than an hour. As Petrole, a community college student who had graduated from Centreville High School, parked his car in front of his newly purchased townhouse in the Braemar community, Barber walked up to the passenger side of Petrole's car and unloaded his weapon.
Police found nearly 50 pounds of marijuana, more than $130,000 in cash, a large quantity of Ecstasy pills, several weapons and soft body armor, among much other musical and DJ equipment in Petrole's house. They also found a list of people who owed Petrole money, including Wolfe.
Wolfe has maintained his innocence from the beginning. He briefly fled the area after Petrole's murder, claiming he was scared of receiving drug charges as police investigated the murder. Wolfe soon turned himself in to police, hoping to persuade prosecutors he had nothing to do with the murder.
In that 2005 affidavit, Barber states: "Justin [Wolfe] had nothing to do with the killing of Daniel Petrole. There was no agreement between Justin and me to kill Danny Petrole. I did not have any discussion, at any time, with Justin about killing Danny Petrole. I lied and implicated Justin because I felt I had no choice."
Barber also details in the affidavit pressure put on him by prosecutors and his own defense attorney to testify against Wolfe or face a possible death sentence. Barber, who was sentenced to 60 years with 22 suspended at Sussex II in Waverly, did not respond to inquiries about the case.
If a district court rules in favor of Wolfe on any of the legal issues, his death sentence or the murder-for-hire conviction could be tossed out and a new trial ordered.
The Prince William Commonwealth's Attorney's office, which won Wolfe's initial conviction, did not respond to inquiries about the case.
Key dates in Justin Wolfe case
March 15, 2001 -- Owen Barber murders Danny Petrole after stalking him for more than an hour following a drug deal between Justin Wolfe and Petrole.
March 17, 2001 -- Wolfe leaves town, he says to avoid questions about drugs; police say to escape the murder investigation.
March 18, 2001 -- J.R. Martin calls Crimesolvers to say his car was used by Barber the night of the murder.
March 19, 2001 -- Barber leaves town after meeting with Jason Coleman, who supplied Barber with the weapon, and signing a car over to him.
March 30, 2001 -- Wolfe meets with investigators.
April 5, 2001 -- Marshals arrest Barber in San Diego.
April 18, 2001 -- Police arrest Barber's former girlfriend on accessory-after-the-fact charges.
Late April 2001 -- Barber tells police Wolfe ordered the murder.
April 30, 2001 -- Wolfe turns himself in to Prince William County police.
June 2001 -- Barber implicates Wolfe during a preliminary hearing.
January 2002 -- A Prince William County jury convicts Wolfe of murder-for-hire and sentences him to death.
February 2002 -- Barber pleads guilty to murdering Petrole.
June 26, 2002 -- The judge in Wolfe's case affirms the jury's death sentence.
August 2002 -- Barber is sentenced to 60 years with 22 suspended.
November 2005 -- Wolfe submits habeas corpus appeal to the federal court system by the required deadline.
December 2005 -- Barber signs each page and correction of a 13-page affidavit explaining Wolfe took no part and did not order the murder.
April 2006 -- Barber sends a short letter to the defense team reverting back to his story Wolfe ordered the murder.
May 2009 -- The U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals orders the U.S. Eastern District Court of Virginia to reconsider evidence it previously rejected in Wolfe's case.
February 2010 -- The U.S. Eastern District Court of Virginia rules Wolfe deserves an evidentiary hearing in an order that appears to suggest a jury would be unlikely to reconvict Wolfe in light of Barber's lack of credibility.
Compiled by Dusty Smith from police and court records