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Death Sentence, Convictions of Innocence Project Clinic Client Overturned

innocence project

by Mary Wood

A federal judge threw out the convictions and death sentence of Northern Virginia man Justin Wolfe this summer, thanks to the efforts of the Law School’s Innocence Project Clinic and partnering organizations.

The clinic worked closely with Wolfe’s pro bono attorneys at the Washington, D.C., law firm King & Spalding and the Virginia Capital Representation Resource Center to demonstrate that the prosecutors in Wolfe’s trial had suppressed evidence that would have exonerated Wolfe. With his July 11 ruling, U.S. Judge Raymond A. Jackson ’73 agreed that the prosecutors’ conduct resulted in an unfair trial.

“We’re elated and gratified,” said Deirdre Enright ’92, director of investigation for the Innocence Project Clinic. “It’s rare to get relief in death penalty cases and rarer still to lay it at the feet of prosecutors.”

Justin Wolfe, who has been on death row since 2002, was convicted of murder for hire and sentenced to die in a case that received national attention and involved an extensive drug ring run by suburban middle-class youths in Northern Virginia.

Jackson’s ruling followed an evidentiary hearing in November 2010 in Norfolk, Va., during which Wolfe’s legal team presented information gleaned from a review of prosecutors’ files for improperly withheld evidence. (More)

“What the ruling says is that in this case there were multiple instances of the Prince William County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office failing to fulfill its constitutional duty to disclose favorable evidence to Justin Wolfe, and that had that evidence been disclosed, it likely would have affected the jury’s verdict,” said Matthew Engle, legal director of the clinic.

The Virginia attorney general’s office filed a motion of intent to appeal to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals following the judge’s decision in July to vacate Wolfe’s murder conviction and to remove him from death row.

But in August, Jackson also tossed out Wolfe's drug and weapon convictions, including a 33-year sentence for conspiracy to distribute marijuana. (More)

“We were asking the judge to clarify that the scope of relief that he was providing encompassed all three of those charges, not just capital murder,” Engle said. “Because the conduct of the prosecutors in this case affected the fairness of the entire trial, all three of the verdicts that the jury returned are now set aside.”

Enright and Engle said students involved who participated in the clinic are thrilled about the ruling.

“One of them who is working in a firm this summer emailed back and said she had to close the door so she could do a little dance in her office,” Engle said.

“I think we all became incredibly invested in the outcome of this case due to the enormity of the stakes involved and the injustice an adverse decision would have represented,” said Allison Harnack, a rising third-year who worked on the case. “The ruling filled me with an indescribable sense of relief.”

The clinic first became involved in the case after the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in February 2010 that the district court hadn’t properly considered Wolfe’s claim of innocence. Jackson then scheduled a hearing to weigh claims that prosecutors withheld evidence that potentially would have helped Wolfe at trial and to consider his claim of innocence.

Students in the year-long clinic scrutinized police reports and interview records, located and interviewed many of the witnesses identified in the reports, met with the attorneys representing Wolfe, helped craft the strategy for the evidentiary hearing and drafted substantial portions of the post-hearing brief that was submitted to Judge Jackson. All 12 students in the class attended the four-day hearing in November  2010 after working on the case throughout the fall.

On Nov. 2, 2010, admitted shooter Owen Barber—who had testified in 2002 that Wolfe hired him to commit the murder—took the witness stand and recanted his story.

The recent ruling confirmed what students had suspected after examining the prosecutors’ documents.

“Reading the opinion is really gratifying for the clinic students, because all these documents that we spent months reading and synthesizing, and the alternate theories of this crime that we developed from these documents—the judge talks very specifically about all of it in his opinion, and finds that the prosecutors had an ethical duty to disclose these documents,” Enright said. “It’s just a great experience for the law students—they got to do it all, and get a result that’s going to save somebody’s life.”

Rising third-year law student Brett Blobaum, who also participated in the clinic, said that working on wrongful conviction cases makes it easy to become cynical about the justice system.

“But the decision proves that even if it comes far too late, the idea of justice might still be something more than just a purely academic exercise in America,” he said.   

In his ruling, Jackson described the case against Wolfe as tenuous and said that by suppressing exculpatory evidence, the prosecutors involved in the case, Prince William County Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul Ebert and Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Richard Conway, “shielded [the Commonwealth’s] case from any potential challenges by the defense, thus depriving the jury of critical information” that could have exonerated Wolfe.

The judge further criticized Ebert for testifying that his reason for withholding information from defense counsel was because doing so would allow defendants to “fabricate a defense” around what they find.

The judge wrote, “Essentially, in an effort to ensure that no defense would be ‘fabricated,’ Ebert and Conway’s actions served to deprive Wolfe of any substantive defense in a case where his life would rest on the jury’s verdict. The Court finds these actions not only unconstitutional in regards to due process, but abhorrent to judicial process.”

Jackson said the prosecutors’ actions were contrary to the 1999 Virginia Code of Professional Responsibility, a finding that could have broader implications because Ebert has testified that he has put as many as 16 people on death row.

“This pretty explicit finding by the judge that he violated the rules of professional conduct is really quite striking.” Engle said. “Given Mr. Ebert’s testimony about his reasons for withholding evidence from defense lawyers, there is every reason to suspect that these problems go beyond Justin Wolfe’s case.  This ruling suggests the need to scrutinize all of the cases prosecuted in Prince William County.”

Ebert, whose work has been honored by the Virginia Bar Association, recently announced he is running for re-election. He told the Washington Post that he saw no reason not to try Wolfe again.

“The evidence was clear and convincing to 12 people, and I see no reason it would not be clear and convincing to 12 people again,” he said.

According to the judge's August order, the Commonwealth has the choice to either retry Wolfe or release him unconditionally within 120 days.

A hearing was held Nov. 10 in federal court in Norfolk to consider a motion to release Wolfe. The judge decided that he could not release Wolfe pending appeal, Enright said.