Judge Throws Out Conviction for UVA Innocence Project Client
University of Virginia Office of Public Affairs/Media Relations Press Release
A federal judge on Monday threw out the conviction and death sentence of Justin Wolfe of Chantilly, through the efforts of the University of Virginia School of Law'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. In his ruling, U.S. Judge Raymond A. Jackson agreed that the prosecutors' conduct resulted in an unfair trial.
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 in Norfolk, during which Wolfe's legal team presented information gleaned from a review of prosecutors' files pertaining to improperly withheld evidence.
Enright and Engle said U.Va. law students who participated in the clinic are thrilled about the ruling.
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 yearlong 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 Jackson.
All 12 students in the class attended the four-day hearing in November after working on the case throughout the fall.
On Nov. 2, 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.
Yesterday's ruling confirmed what students had suspected after examining the prosecutors' documents.
Another rising third-year law student, Brett Blobaum, 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 their case from any potential challenges by the defense, "thus depriving the jury of critical information."
The judge further criticized Ebert for testifying that he withheld information so that the defendants couldn't "fabricate a defense" around what the defense found.
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 testified that he has put as many as 16 people on death row.
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 Virginia attorney general almost certainly will appeal the ruling to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Enright said, which means Wolfe may remain in prison until at least 2012.
If the 4th Circuit agrees with the ruling, the case will be sent back to Prince William County, and prosecutors there may have to retry him on all charges he was convicted on, including some drug charges.