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Freedom upheld for Virginia death-row inmate

Conviction wrong, appeals court says

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A federal appeals panel has upheld a ruling vacating the death sentence for a Fairfax man widely believed to have been wrongfully convicted in a murder-for-hire scheme.

A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Thursday that Justin Wolfe of Chantilly, who was convicted and sentenced to death in 2002, should be exonerated because the prosecution improperly sat on evidence discrediting a key witness. Mr. Wolfe was convicted for his role in a scheme that resulted in Owen Barber killing Mr. Wolfe's marijuana supplier, Danny Petrole.

Terri Steinberg, Mr. Wolfe's mother, said in a statement the state should not appeal the ruling and that her heart goes out to Petrole's family.

"This case has already gone on too long, wasted too much taxpayer money, and destroyed too many lives," she said.

A spokesman for Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II said they are still reviewing the ruling and have not decided whether to appeal.

In 2005, Barber recanted testimony that Mr. Wolfe had hired him to kill Petrole for $13,000 in cash and drugs. He also signed a sworn affidavit saying he had lied to avoid the death penalty after his own conviction.

"The prosecution and my own defense attorney placed me in a position in which I felt that I had to [choose] between falsely testifying against Justin or dying," Barber said in the sworn statement.

"Justin does not deserve to die for something he did not do," Barber wrote. "I am not angry at him anymore and I feel bad about the fact that an innocent man is on death row."

But five months after that statement, he again changed his story and said he had testified truthfully at the trial.

In February 2010, the 4th U.S. Circuit ruled that Mr. Wolfe's claims of innocence weren't properly considered and he won an evidentiary hearing in U.S. District Court later that year.

Jason Coleman, Barber's roommate,testified in district court that he spoke with Barber after the killing and Barber conceded he had acted alone. Mr. Coleman also said he told prosecutors about that conversation.

State officials maintain they were not told or do not recall such a statement. They criticized the district court for "reject[ing] the state officials' testimony in favor of admitted liars and drug dealers."

In July 2011, U.S. District Judge Raymond A. Jackson threw out Mr. Wolfe's conviction, citing prosecutors' use of Barber's false testimony. He also said Mr. Wolfe's right to due process had been violated.

The judge said that regardless of whether the failure to disclose such an agreement was intentional or unintentional, it warranted overturning Mr. Wolfe's conviction.

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