When giving instructions to the jury in Justin Wolfe's capital-murder trial, Judge Herman Whisenant said that, to justify recommending that he receive the death penalty, the prosecution had to prove at least one "aggravating circumstance" in the execution-style killing of Danny Petrole:
* The probability that Wolfe would continue to commit violent acts and be a threat to society;
* The murder itself was outrageous, wanton, vile or inhuman;
* The victim suffered aggravated battery beyond that necessary to accomplish the deed.
Last Thursday, Jan. 24 — after five hours' deliberation — the jury of three men and nine women found that all three factors existed and recommended that Wolfe, 20, of Centreville, be put to death. He will return to Prince William County Circuit Court, April 22, when the judge will either impose the jury's recommendation or reduce Wolfe's punishment to life in prison without parole.
Accused of hiring Centreville resident Owen Barber, then 21, to kill Petrole, 21, to erase a drug debt, for the past three weeks Wolfe stood trial in Prince William. And since murder-for-hire is a capital offense, once the jury convicted him of the crime last week, it only had two punishment options — death, or life in prison without parole.
The jury deliberated for little more than an hour before finding Wolfe guilty. Deciding his resultant fate was much tougher.
Chantilly High grad Barber testified that Wolfe promised him drugs and $10,000 for Petrole's murder. On March 15, Barber did his part, fatally shooting Petrole nine times after the former Virginia Run resident drove up to his new townhouse in Bristow. Barber fired the shots from a 9 mm handgun through Petrole's passenger-side window.
Then he drove away, tossing the gun in a nearby intersection before joining Wolfe at Fairfax nightclub Bridges to party. But the party was as short-lived as Petrole's life. Even though both Barber and Wolfe fled the state after the murder, police traced the gun to Barber and followed his ex-girlfriend to Southern California after she'd gone there to join him.
They both later testified that Wolfe failed to keep his end of the bargain — Barber had a difficult time collecting his payment. As things turned out, he never got it. Instead, U.S. marshals apprehended him in his hotel room, April 5, and brought him back to Virginia.
By April 30, Wolfe was also in custody, charged with conspiracy to commit murder and conspiracy to distribute drugs. Initially facing the death penalty, too, Barber agreed to testify against Wolfe. In return, authorities reduced his charge to first-degree murder and promised a sentence of no more than life in prison without parole.
The whole, sordid affair revolved around huge amounts of drugs and money. Barber sold low-grade marijuana, or "swag." Wolfe dealt higher-grade weed, known as "chronic," and Petrole was Wolfe's supplier.
After Petrole's death, police discovered $17,460 in the trunk of his car. In his townhouse was another $120,366, plus nearly $500,000 worth of drugs — more than 2,000 ecstasy tablets and nearly 50 pounds of chronic.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars changed hands regularly, and a dozen young drug dealers in Fairfax and Prince William counties became rich. Yet it was a risky profession because dealers were sometimes robbed — often, at gunpoint — by others wanting a bigger share of the pie.
But they went into it with eyes open. Indeed, Wolfe's girlfriend Rebecca Zeuner testified that, when she expressed sadness about Petrole's death — in the presence of Wolfe and another man — one of the two men replied, "No need; only two things happen to drug dealers — they either die or go to jail."
In Wolfe's case, authorities say he owed Petrole almost $81,000 for drugs fronted to him, and eliminating him would also eliminate the debt. Barber didn't even know Petrole but, he said, he was willing to do the job.
Before the jury began deliberating Wolfe's fate, last week, the opposing attorneys presented their closing arguments. Commonwealth's Attorney Paul Ebert said that, although Wolfe's parents were divorced and his mother remarried, they all remained close and supportive of him.
"I feel sorry for anyone who has a child who goes wrong," he said. "They did what they could for him." But once Wolfe turned to selling drugs, said Ebert, "He became the top gun for Chantilly High."
As Wolfe's empire grew, said Ebert, Wolfe pretty much "threw his money away — spending $2,000-$3,000 on a weekend. He estimated he made $100,000 tax-free. But as he became bigger, he became so greedy that the well-being and lives of others meant nothing to him."
Ebert said someone with Wolfe's mindset can "manipulate, drive and direct those who may be able to kill, murder or rob. He's more dangerous than the actual perpetrator because he sends the trigger-man out to do his ill deeds."
Despite Petrole's illegal activities, Ebert told the jury, "He didn't deserve to die and he didn't deserve to die a horrible death. [Wolfe testified Jan. 23] and told you how sorry he was. But did you see any remorse after [the killing]? One tear? They went to Bridges and partied. The only remorse is because he got caught and is here before you — it's only to save his own skin. For certain, if he's no longer on this earth, no one else will suffer."
Ebert said perhaps the most important aspect of Wolfe's punishment would be to send a message to young people here and nationwide about the trouble drugs can cause and that choices have consequences. Then, he said, "Maybe somebody will think twice before they take a life — because [the death penalty] is available."
Ebert said Wolfe told the jury he didn't want to die. "Danny Petrole didn't want to die," said Ebert, as Petrole's mother and longtime girlfriend burst into tears. "This man should receive the same fate that Mr. Petrole did."
Attorney Rachel Fierro, assisting John Patridge in Wolfe's defense, said Wolfe went through trauma as a child and, if he'd received counseling as a teen-ager, things might have been different. If sentenced to life in prison without parole, she said, "Justin will have to wake up each morning and face the consequences of his actions. He'll never be able to celebrate with his family his 21st birthday or experience the joy of marriage or of holding his first child in his arms."
Saying she realized Petrole wouldn't be able to do these things, either, Fierro said Wolfe got "swept away, sucked up into this storm, out of control." Otherwise, she said, he was kind, thoughtful and considerate and helped his mother with his younger siblings — and he had no prior history of violence.
As Wolfe's mother cried, Fierro told the jury: "You hold Justin's life in your hands, and life is precious ... reach down in your soul when you make this decision ... appeal to a higher being. The death penalty is final — I ask you to choose life."
In rebuttal, Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Rick Conway said, "Ms. Fierro told you 'life is precious.' Isn't it too bad the defendant didn't feel this way?" As for the drug charge, he asked the jury to look at the scope of Wolfe's drug operation and the "quantity and frequency of the drugs and money he moved through Northern Virginia — how brazen."
Returning to the murder charge, Conway said that, even from prison, Wolfe could continue enlisting others to "do his dirty work." Said Conway: "Yesterday, Justin Wolfe told you, 'I don't want to die.' Don't you expect that was the last thought of Danny Petrole as he looked into the gun and the cold, emotionless eyes of Owen Barber — the executioner [Wolfe] sent there to kill him?"
During the course of the jurors' deliberations, they sent questions to the judge, such as, "Does 'life in prison' mean the defendant will never be released by any means?" But not wishing to influence them in any way, all Whisenant could do was tell them to re-read his instructions.
Shortly before 5 p.m., they returned with their sentence recommendations: 30 years in prison for drug distribution, three years for use of a firearm in the commission of a felony — and the death penalty for Petrole's murder. As the bailiff led Wolfe away, he exhaled loudly and looked back at his mother.
His family believes he's innocent, and his mother, Terri Steinberg, said it was difficult listening to what was said about him in court. "We all feel the same pain," she said, noting her son was in shock after the jury found him guilty. "He never believed they'd take Owen's word over his." Regardless of the final sentence, she said, "We'll be fighting this all the way — there are too many questions out there."
Petrole's father said he supports the jury's recommendation and believes it's justified and "in the best interests of the commonwealth. Nobody wants somebody to die, but people have to be held accountable for their actions ... I have compassion for [Wolfe's] family, and I'll continue to pray for Justin Wolfe's salvation."
Meanwhile, Wolfe's attorney, Partridge, said, "We're shocked at the sentence — the family is devastated. It's tragic because I think he's in jail for a crime he did not commit, and now he's been given the ultimate penalty. He was prepared to deal with whichever way it went — and in light of the one-hour verdict — he expected it. He said he hoped for the best, but expected the worst."