Centreville More than 10 years have passed since Chantilly High grad Justin Wolfe has been inside a Prince William County courtroom. The last time, June 26, 2002, he was sentenced to death for ordering the March 2001, execution-style killing of Centreville High grad Danny Petrole.
But Friday morning, clad in a bright-orange jumpsuit, Wolfe returned to the defense table in Circuit Court. His family hoped he’d be granted bail and allowed to come home, after spending the past 11 years in prison.
Instead, three things happened: He was denied bail, a date was set to retry him on capital-murder and drug charges, and Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Ray Morrogh was introduced as Wolfe’s new prosecutor.
The case involved drug-dealing and money, and the shooter — Chantilly grad Owen Barber IV, who pleaded guilty — received 38 years in prison. Besides being given the death penalty, Wolfe was sentenced to 33 years in prison for drug distribution and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony.
Since then — because prosecutors failed to disclose information that would have impeached the testimony of Barber, the key witness against him — two federal courts vacated Wolfe’s convictions and sentences. Nonetheless, Wolfe can be tried again, and it’s not double jeopardy because his convictions were vacated, not overturned.
Last Friday, Sept. 14, Judge Mary Grace O’Brien said Wolfe’s previous prosecutor, Prince William County Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul Ebert, had recused himself from the case and “the commonwealth asked for a special prosecutor.”
Representing Wolfe, Matthew Engle noted that, if Ebert hadn’t recused himself, the defense would have made that motion. While saying he has no objection to Morrogh, personally, Engle added, “We feel it’s inappropriate for Prince William to hand-select the prosecutor.”
But, replied O’Brien, “The court believes it was appropriate to appoint him. I know he has experience and has handled at least one similar case remanded from the federal court.”
Morrogh requested a jury trial, and the judge scheduled it for three weeks, running from Oct. 15 through Nov. 2. Arguing for bail, Engle said Wolfe “presents no risk to the public, if released, and has demonstrated his actual innocence of the capital-murder charge. He has strong ties to the community, his family will post bond and his step-father would give him a phone-sales job. Mr. Wolfe isn’t interested in fleeing prosecution; he’s interested in clearing his name.”
But Morrogh did consider Wolfe a flight risk and said he’d previously admitted fleeing to Florida after the murder because “he felt it was too hot up here.”
Focusing on Wolfe’s previous statements, Morrogh said, “He admitted to being a drug kingpin, saying that, at one point, there was $500,000 in his ‘owe book.’ He sold ecstasy to kids and made hundreds of thousands of dollars off of selling marijuana. It seems clear to me that he planned this murder and caused it to occur, so I believe he is indeed a danger.”
However, countered Engle, “[Wolfe’s] just completed the most-intensive, scared-straight program in history. This needs to end and he needs to be brought home.”
But O’Brien had the last word. “The charges have not been rebutted and trial is set for 30 days from now,” she said. “So I’m going to deny the motion for bail.”
Afterward, outside the courtroom, Morrogh declined to discuss the charges against Wolfe, but said, “I’m going forward with what’s right.”
Meanwhile, Wolfe’s mother, Terri Steinberg, wept and was consoled by her husband and the nearly three dozen friends and family members who’d come to court to support her son. “I’m very disappointed,” she said. “He should have come home.”