Federal judge in Virginia tosses death sentence

By LARRY O'DELL | July 12, 2011 | 5:59 PM EDT

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A federal judge on Tuesday threw out a Virginia drug dealer's murder-for-hire conviction and death sentence in the 2001 slaying of his marijuana supplier in a case that exposed a distribution ring in the wealthy northern suburbs.

U.S. District Judge Raymond A. Jackson of Norfolk ruled that Justin Michael Wolfe, 29, was wrongfully convicted in the death of 21-year-old Daniel Petrole Jr. in Prince William County. Wolfe claimed that the shooter, Owen Barber IV, acted alone.

Barber was the key prosecution witness in Wolfe's 2002 trial, which exposed a high-end marijuana distribution ring in the wealthy suburbs of northern Virginia. Barber agreed to plead guilty to first-degree murder and testify against Wolfe in exchange for a life sentence.

Barber recanted his testimony in 2005. Five months later, he again changed his story and said he had testified truthfully at Wolfe's trial. Barber's former roommate and his former cellmate also filed sworn statements saying Barber told them he acted alone in killing Petrole.

Jackson said in his ruling that the state's use of Barber's false testimony was grounds for vacating Wolfe's conviction and sentence. He also said Wolfe's due process rights were violated when prosecutors withheld information from his attorneys. Wolfe also was denied the right to an impartial jury, the judge ruled.

Neither Wolfe's attorneys nor the Virginia attorney general's office immediately responded to requests for comment.

According to trial testimony, Wolfe was making $10,000 to $15,000 a month selling high-end marijuana he bought from Petrole. Wolfe had been friends since high school with Barber, who sold lower-grade marijuana.

At the time of Petrole's death, Wolfe owed Petrole about $60,000.

On March 15, 2001, after Petrole delivered the pot to Wolfe, Barber followed Petrole to his home and shot him 10 times as he sat in his car. Barber testified that in exchange for the slaying, Wolfe forgave a $3,000 debt, gave him more than five pounds of marijuana and promised an additional $10,000.

In his affidavit recanting the testimony, Barber said he had intended to confront Petrole but thought he saw him reach for a gun, so he fired. He said he implicated Wolfe to avoid the death penalty.