In March 2001, Centreville High grad Danny Petrole, 21, was shot and killed outside his Bristow townhouse. The crime involved drug-dealing and money, and the shooter — Chantilly High grad Owen Barber IV, who pleaded guilty — received 38 years in prison.
Largely on Barber’s testimony, Chantilly grad Justin Wolfe was convicted of hiring Barber for the deed and, in June 2002, was sentenced to death. He also received 33 years in prison for drug and firearm charges.
Since then — because Prince William County prosecutors deliberately withheld information that would have impeached Barber’s testimony — two federal courts vacated Wolfe’s convictions and sentences. Initially facing the death penalty, Barber testified he didn’t know Petrole, but killed him because Wolfe hired him. It was later revealed that prosecutors and a detective influenced Barber to say those things in exchange for his charge being reduced from capital to first-degree murder.
During a November 2010 hearing in Federal Court in Norfolk, U.S. District Court Judge Raymond Jackson heard evidence not presented previously. Subsequently, in his July 2011 decision to overturn Wolfe’s convictions and sentences, Jackson said Wolfe’s due-process rights had been violated before and during his capital-murder trial.
Jackson wrote that the commonwealth “failed to disclose evidence indicating Barber had a relationship with Petrole” prior to his death. This disclosure, he wrote — plus statements from a confidential informant that “Barber owed Petrole money [and] Petrole had a hit out on Barber” — could have impeached Barber’s testimony.
Furthermore, prosecutors didn’t reveal that, while first interviewing Barber, Det. Samson Newsome said implicating Wolfe “could mean the difference between execution or life in prison” for Barber. Jackson said the prosecution also didn’t disclose that Barber told his roommate, Jason Coleman, he’d murdered Petrole on his own. But Coleman said so at the evidentiary hearing.
In August 2012, citing “prosecutorial misconduct,” the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upheld Jackson’s ruling. But with Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Ray Morrogh as special prosecutor, Prince William County decided to retry Wolfe.
However, in a ruling filed Dec. 26, Jackson wrote that — because on Sept. 11, 2012, the original prosecutors again threatened Barber with the death penalty if he didn’t stick to the story he told at trial — they “scared Barber into invoking [the] Fifth Amendment,” thus rendering him unable to aid Wolfe in a retrial. Consequently, wrote Jackson, “Instead of curing the constitutional defects in [Wolfe’s] original convictions, the original [prosecutors] permanently crystalized them.”
Because of this and because the court didn’t retry Wolfe within a 120-day limit that had been set, Jackson ordered Wolfe released “unconditionally” on all past charges and barred his retrial on “any other charges stemming from [Petrole’s death] which require [Barber’s] testimony.”
Wednesday, Jan. 2, in Prince William Circuit Court, Morrogh said the attorney general was appealing and requesting a stay of Jackson’s order and would appeal to the Supreme Court, if necessary. Morrogh stated he’d brought his own, independent charges against Wolfe and could “prove without any doubt” that “Barber lied in federal court.”
But defense attorney Kimberly Irving said U.S. District Court believed Barber was truthful and “it doesn’t make Judge Jackson’s findings wrong because Mr. Morrogh disagrees with him.”
Ultimately, Judge Mary Grace O’Brien upheld Jackson’s ruling. She said that since “the new charges stem from the original charges,” she was granting “the defense’s motion [for release]. I’ll enter an order [Jan. 3] at 5 p.m., providing I don’t receive a stay from the attorney general by then.”
With that, Wolfe’s mother, Terri Steinberg, cried with relief while hugging friends and relatives. Wolfe, now 31, has spent more than 11 years in solitary confinement, and she’s eager to have him home again.
“I don’t know if it’s real, yet,” she said. “I’m so glad [O’Brien] gave us this opportunity. Maybe by tomorrow, he’ll be breathing fresh air. I’m grateful for everything our legal team’s done and for them believing in my son. He’s innocent; he’s said that from day one and has never waivered.”
Husband Ben Steinberg was “cautiously optimistic. So many times we thought we were at the end, but the commonwealth keeps going. But I think Justin’s hopeful, as well. You could see the smile on his face.” Meanwhile, Chantilly student Lindsay Steinberg said she’d missed her big brother. “I’m really excited,” she said. “He hasn’t been home since I was 4.”
Family friend Pamela Gillen was also happy “to see justice being served. I honestly didn’t think we’d see this day.” And Irving was “hopeful this will hold. It’s still tenuous, but I’m pleased for today.”