Virginia Rebuked For "Abhorrent" Actions In Death Penalty Case

August 17, 2012

Justin Wolfe
Justin Wolfe

Owen Barber shot Daniel Petrole to death in Bristow, Virginia on March 15, 2001. Barber was convicted of murder and got a sentence of 60 years. In 2002, Justin Wolfe was sent to Virginia’s death row for paying Barber to kill Petrole. But did he?

Federal courts have examined Wolfe’s murder-for-hire conviction and thrown it out, with unusually strong words for Virginia officials:

“The Court finds these actions not only unconstitutional in regards to due process, but abhorrent to the judicial process.”

The problems?

  1. It was police who suggested to Owen Barber, while threatening him with the death penalty, that he name Justin Wolfe.
  2. After these capital punishment threats, Owen Barber did say that Wolfe hired him for the killing, but then recanted afterwards.
  3. Barber’s testimony was the only direct evidence linking Wolfe to the crime.
  4. The prosecution “knowingly presented false testimony by Barber.”
  5. The police report that included the death penalty threats and suggestions to name Wolfe was never turned over to Wolfe’s defense.

Suppressing evidence relevant to the defense is known as a Brady violation, named after the Supreme Court case that required prosecutors to disclose such information. Virginia prosecutors committed a bunch of Brady violations in this case – courts found that they withheld “eight items or groups of favorable and material evidence.”

Courts also ruled that this withholding was “entirely intentional.”

Now the rebuked prosecutors will have to decide whether to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court or retry Justin Wolfe, despite the fact that their murder case has fallen apart.

While we’re here, there is one other important issue to address. Owen Barber fingered Justin Wolfe, at the suggestion of the police, after being threatened with execution. The use of death penalty threats to coerce information or confessions (aka, as a “bargaining chip”) is sometimes touted as a reason to support capital punishment.

But in this case (and many others), threatening a witness with death led to something that in no way resembles justice.