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Virginia Supreme Court Upholds Death Penalty

Found guilty of capital murder and sentenced to death last summer for the gangland-style killing of a 21-year-old Centreville man, Centreville's Justin Wolfe appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court.

The justices responded last Friday, Feb. 28, affirming the ruling of the Prince William County Circuit Court in both instances. It means that Wolfe, who'll be 22 on March 17, will remain on death row in Sussex No. 1 State Prison in Waverly, Va. But neither he nor his family are ready to accept that fate.

"We keep fighting — someone's got to," said his mother, Terri Steinberg, saying the next step is an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. "My son's life is dangled before me every day, and I wonder how I can save him."

But her family isn't the only one locally with a hole in it. The Petroles of Virginia Run are missing their son Danny, whose life was ended, March 15, 2001, by nine bullets fired by Centreville resident Owen Barber IV, then 21. Barber testified in court that Wolfe hired him to do the deed and, when the dust cleared, Barber was sentenced to 38 years in prison and Wolfe was sentenced to death.

Unlike Barber — who almost immediately admitted his guilt — Wolfe maintained his innocence all along and never wavered. "I still think there are a lot of unanswered questions," said Steinberg on Tuesday. "Justin wasn't the monster they painted in that courtroom."

Nonetheless, the jurors at his trial believed the prosecution had an overwhelming amount of evidence against him and found him guilty as charged.

And when they deliberated Wolfe's sentence, they were so afraid that he might someday be out on the street again that — after the judge refused to answer their question regarding any possible circumstances by which he could be freed after receiving a sentence of life in prison — they recommended that Wolfe receive the death penalty.

NEITHER BARBER, PETROLE OR WOLFE were exactly choir boys, and all three were deeply involved in a world of drugs, guns and violence. During Barber's and Wolfe's trials, much of the testimony came from self-admitted drug dealers and users — but it, Barber's confession and some crucial cell-phone records sewed up the two convictions. Here's what happened:

When Petrole — the son of a former Secret Service agent — was found slain in his car in front of his Bristow townhouse, two years ago, the murder stunned the local community. Then details later revealed in court both shocked and riveted area residents who had no idea of the scope of the drug dealing going on routinely in upscale Centreville and Chantilly.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars changed hands regularly, and a dozen young drug dealers in Fairfax and Prince William counties became rich. Barber and Wolfe were 1998 Chantilly High grads; Petrole graduated in '98 from Centreville High.

All three came from good families — and none of their parents knew of their secret lives. Petrole sold "chronic" — high-grade marijuana — and Barber sold low-grade marijuana, or "swag." Wolfe bought it from both of them and dealt it to others.

After Petrole's death, police discovered $965 in his wallet and $17,460 in his car's trunk. In his townhouse was $120,366, plus nearly $500,000 worth of drugs — more than 2,000 ecstasy tablets and almost 50 pounds of chronic. Police also seized guns, soft body armor and drug paraphernalia and records.

Petrole spent $360,000/month buying chronic from Seattle and made $100,000 to $140,000 a month dealing it. Wolfe's operation enabled him to spend thousands of dollars in a weekend and vacation in Jamaica shortly before the murder.

But in early 2001, over tall beers at a Fair Lakes restaurant, testified Barber, Wolfe asked him to "get his chronic man." Authorities said Wolfe owed Petrole nearly $81,000 for drugs fronted to him, and ending his life would nullify the debt.

Said Barber: "I asked if he wanted me to rob him, and he said, 'No, we gotta kill him 'cause he knows too many people.' He said it was Danny Petrole. I knew his name — I didn't know him."

In return, said Barber, Wolfe promised to give him 4 1/2 pounds of marijuana and $10,000 and erase a $3,000 debt Barber owed him. Barber then stalked Petrole, trying to get him alone to kill him. Finally, said Barber, Wolfe set up a drug buy from Petrole, March 15, calling him afterward so he could trail and kill Petrole.

Prosecutors said phone records showed Wolfe and Barber in constant contact with each other that night, with Wolfe telling Barber what car Petrole was driving and where he was headed. When Petrole drove up to his townhouse, Barber fired 10 shots from a 9 mm Smith & Wesson, through Petrole's passenger-side window. All but one found their mark.

Then he drove off, flinging the gun in a nearby intersection and joining Wolfe at Fairfax nightclub Bridges to party. Barber said he told Wolfe, "I shot him [and] he had to be dead — all those bullets that close.”

Next day, Wolfe celebrated his 20th birthday. Then Barber fled to San Diego and Wolfe, to Florida. But police traced the gun to Barber and followed his ex-girlfriend to Southern California where she'd joined him. U.S. marshals and a special fugitive task force apprehended Barber, April 5, and returned him to Virginia. By April 30, Wolfe was also arrested.

Initially facing the death penalty, Barber agreed to testify against Wolfe and his charge was reduced to first-degree murder. On Aug. 6, 2002, he was sentenced to 38 years in prison.

TWO MONTHS EARLIER, on June 26, Judge Herman Whisenant Jr. sentenced Wolfe to death, as recommended Jan. 24 by his jury, plus 30 years in prison for drug distribution and three years for use of a firearm in the commission of a felony.

The Supreme Court opinion, written by Chief Justice Leroy Hassell, referred to Circuit Court testimony. "[Wolfe] admitted he was the last person Barber called before [killing] Petrole and the first person [afterward]," wrote Hassell. "Our review of ... this case reveals that the Commonwealth presented evidence that permitted the jury to find beyond a reasonable doubt that [Wolfe] hired Barber to kill Petrole."

Hassell wrote that Wolfe needn't have had a prior criminal record before the jury could determine he'd be a "future danger to society." And the fact that Wolfe and Barber made previous attempts to find and kill Petrole, he wrote, underscores this conclusion.

Wolfe argued in his appeal that his sentence was excessive, compared to similar cases. But, wrote Hassell, "Though no two capital-murder cases are identical ... given the special heinousness associated with the murder-for-hire in this particular case, the sentence of death is neither excessive nor disproportionate."

Hassell noted trial-error assertions of Wolfe's that his appeal failed to properly address. And he mentioned things Wolfe couldn't dispute now because his attorney didn't dispute them at trial. But Wolfe's mother was disappointed "the court chose to ignore so many substantive errors of trial."

And although Hassell wrote, "Barber's version of the murder-for-hire scheme is consistent with the testimony of numerous other witnesses," Steinberg questioned their veracity. "The only people who testified that weren't facing criminal charges or receiving reduced sentences for testifying made mistakes in their testimony, and the jury was never allowed to hear the corrected statements," she said.

Steinberg said her family's devastated and it's "tortuous to have our Justin's life so threatened. I pray that young people still involved in drugs will see the mistakes Justin made and make better decisions for themselves. At least then we will not have suffered in vain."

Her heart goes out to the Petroles, who "lost their son" to drugs at a young age. "My faith tells me God has a better plan for Justin," she said. "Justin made mistakes, but he doesn't need to be killed to protect society. He has more than learned his lesson; I pray others will learn, as well."

MOST OF ALL, Wolfe's family believes he's innocent. "[The prosecution] offered Justin deals, but he always refused," said his mother. "He said he wasn't going to plead guilty to a murder he had nothing to do with."

As for the phone calls, she said, "Owen was trying to pick up weed. He did call Justin a lot, but who's to say what he was calling about [that night] — or even that the calls went through?"

Steinberg said her son reads and plays chess in prison and she tries to visit him, every other weekend: "He's very strong — he doesn't want us to feel his pain. He's been remarkable, just hanging in there and waiting for the truth to come out."

In Virginia, she said, prisoners usually don't stay on death row for more than seven years — but she'll keep fighting for Justin's freedom. "The death penalty is horrible for the victim's family; it only creates more victims," she said. "And if it happens someday, how do I deal with it with my other children?"