Innocence Project Clinic Seeks to Overturn Death Sentence
Students in the Law School’s Innocence Project Clinic are waiting on a pivotal court ruling after months of effort to clear the name of a client sentenced to die.
The 12 students in the clinic spent the past semester working on the case of Justin Wolfe, who in 2002 was convicted of murder-for-hire and given the death penalty. The case exposed an extensive Northern Virginia drug ring run by suburban middle class youths, and received national attention.
During the fall semester, clinic students pored through evidence not presented at the original trial after a federal district judge in Norfolk, Va., allowed Wolfe’s defense team to review prosecutors’ files for improperly withheld evidence. After scrutinizing the police reports and interview records, clinic students located and interviewed many of the witnesses identified in the reports, met with the attorneys representing Wolfe, and helped craft the strategy for an evidentiary hearing in federal court.
On Nov. 2, the admitted shooter — who had testified in 2002 that Wolfe hired him to commit the murder — took the witness stand and recanted his story.
Deirdre Enright, the director of investigations for the Innocence Project Clinic, said the experience of getting their hands on the evidence and participating in the case was an incredible one for students.
“They got to go to the hearing and watch all of the documents they’d read and analyzed being displayed on screens in the courtroom, and watch lawyers conduct direct and cross examinations based on their work in a capital murder case in which the client has plead actual innocence, and then watch the shooter take the stand and say ‘[Wolfe] had nothing to do with this,’” Enright said.
The clinic expects a decision from the district court in the coming weeks or months.
On March 5, 2001, 21-year-old Danny Petrole was shot to death in his car after pulling up to his Northern Virginia townhouse.
Petrole and others had been importing a steady stream of high-grade marijuana from the West Coast and distributing it locally through a network of drug dealers. Inside Petrole’s house, police found almost 50 pounds of marijuana, Ecstasy pills and large sums of cash, all together worth over $500,000.
Afterward, investigators traced the 9mm handgun used in the shooting to 21-year-old Owen Merton Barber IV, who was arrested a month later on the run in San Diego.
Wolfe was also arrested and charged with hiring Barber to kill Petrole in exchange for cash, drugs and forgiven debt. Wolfe pleaded not guilty and testified that he was not involved in the murder, but was convicted after a trial in which Barber and others from their social circle testified against him. Barber received a 38-year prison sentence for the shooting as part of a plea deal with prosecutors.
But Barber recanted his testimony in a 2005 affidavit filed as part of Wolfe’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus in federal court, and said Wolfe actually had nothing to do with the crime. Barber later took back his recantation, and the district judge denied the petition.
However, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in February that the district court hadn’t properly considered Wolfe’s claim of innocence. Afterward, the district judge 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.
After the case was sent back to district court, Wolfe’s attorneys contacted the Law School’s Innocence Project Clinic for help preparing for the hearing.
Though they were interested in the case, there wasn’t much to be done initially other than soliciting new affidavits from witnesses, Enright said.
Later on, the clinic learned that Wolfe’s attorneys had been granted discovery, or access to the materials police gathered during the original investigation. That meant a trove of witness statements, police interview reports and audiotapes and other material to review for a hearing only a few weeks away.
“Our students did an extraordinary amount of work in a very short time. They did everything we asked of them and more,” said Matthew Engle, the clinic’s legal director.
The students were each assigned a central witness from the 2002 trial, and started going over everything from trial testimony to transcripts and audio recordings of police interviews in the days after the murder. Almost all the material they reviewed had been unavailable to Wolfe’s original defense attorney.
“They sent the documents and we started reading them, and we said ‘There’re several alternate theories here,’” Enright said.
Second-year student Michelle Harrison was assigned to review the testimony of the victim’s roommate, who had provided several interviews and statements to police.
“I was walking around with a stack of documents for a month and a half,” Harrison said. “I went through the documents, sorted them, and saw how the story he was telling evolved over time.”
Those materials included tapes of prison phone calls, police statements and other information. She also accompanied Enright to interview the former roommate.
The students helped construct an alternate theory of the crime based on the materials they reviewed. To them, it made no sense that Wolfe would arrange the murder of his main drug connection, effectively cutting off his own supply.
However, the students found evidence to suggest that Petrole was possibly working just before his death to exclude a link above him in the drug supply chain, a move that would have cut one of his suppliers out, Enright said.
The clinic students mapped out a complex network of social relationships and drug arrangements that spanned from Seattle — where the drugs were coming from — to Petrole, down to local dealers, who in turn sold to even smaller drug dealers.
“Once you develop that timeline, looking at geography, the conclusions that the prosecution made start to make little sense,” said Wes Boling, a second-year clinic student. “You see the multiple motives that other people have to have committed this crime, and the lack of a motive that our client had.”
Boling and fellow clinic student Cassandra Mendoza went with Enright and Engle to meet with Wolfe’s attorneys prior to the hearing.
“They basically presented two boards that showed the lists of witnesses, and on another board they mapped out a tree of where the story was going to go,” Boling said. “We realized that — and I think this came from our work the most clearly — that this story is really really complicated, and in order to tell that at trial and do justice to Justin at trial, you have to be very basic about it.”
The fact that the court hearing was focused on two narrow claims — that Wolfe was innocent and that prosecutors withheld potentially exculpatory evidence at trial — helped students focus on the relevant portions of the huge amount of information they sifted through, Mendoza said.
“I think it was great in terms of factual analysis and in terms of investigation,” she said. “It was really instructive in terms of learning what it is that we should be looking for and how to determine what is important in terms of a case. You only have a few claims that have been OK’d for review; it really taught me how to focus on those claims instead of facts that may be interesting but were irrelevant.”
All 12 clinic students traveled to Norfolk to hear parts of the district court hearing in November. The hearing was originally scheduled for two days, but ended up requiring two more.
“An example of how fascinating the hearing was for the students was that we had 100 percent attendance,” Engle said.
One of the high points for the students was hearing Barber tell the judge that Wolfe hadn’t hired him to do the shooting, and that he’d turned against Wolfe out of fear of receiving the death penalty himself, Enright said.
Third-year law student Bernadette Donovan said it was gratifying to see Wolfe’s attorneys using the material the clinic had compiled. The clinic students and instructors were constantly passing notes in the gallery, occasionally even passing them to the defense attorneys conducting the hearing, she said.
“This, for me, to be honest, was completely life-changing,” said Donovan, who had previously hoped to work in commercial litigation but now hopes for a career in post-conviction appellate work.
“You do all that investigation up front, and that provides a certain excitement, and so does going to court and seeing it all play out,” she said.
Mendoza said participation in the clinic was beneficial even for students with little interest in a career in criminal defense.
“If you have any interest in working on a real case and really getting your hands dirty doing some investigation, this is a great experience no matter what you want to do with your career,” she said. “Matt and Deirdre were so passionate about the case that they made everyone else want to be passionate about it as well.”
Now, all the parties involved are waiting on a ruling from the federal district court judge, who will decide whether the concerns raised by Wolfe’s attorneys merit vacating the conviction and sending the case back to state court, where prosecutors would have the option of trying Wolfe again, or whether the case should be allowed to progress toward Wolfe’s execution.
Regardless of how the ruling comes down, either party will have the option to appeal to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Enright said.