High court rejects defendant’s vindictive-prosecution claim

The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to hear an appeal from a Virginia drug dealer who is serving a 41-year murder sentence that he claims is the result of vindictive prosecution.

The high court on Monday turned aside the appeal from Justin Wolfe without comment. The rejection comes two years after the Supreme Court had ordered Virginia to give his claims of vindictive prosecution a hearing.

Monday’s action could be the final chapter in a legal saga that has dragged on for two decades. Wolfe was convicted of murder in Prince William County in the 2001 slaying of another drug dealer, Daniel Petrole. Prosecutors said Wolfe owed Petrole, his supplier, tens of thousands of dollars and hired another man, Owen Barber, to shoot and kill Petrole.

Wolfe, who was just 19 years old when he was first charged, was on death row and within days of execution. But Judge Raymond Jackson in Norfolk halted the execution after Wolfe’s lawyers claimed prosecutors withheld evidence and Barber recanted his testimony that he’d been paid by Wolfe to carry out the slaying.

Wolfe was granted a new trial, and the original prosecutor, Paul Ebert, recused himself. The new prosecutor, then-Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Ray Morrogh, brought new charges that again exposed Wolfe to a possible death sentence.

Wolfe then pleaded guilty in a plea deal that took the death penalty off the table, but included a requirement sought by the Petrole family requiring Wolfe to admit in his own words what he did.

After Wolfe was sentenced to 41 years, he recanted his admission and said the aggressive charges pursued by Morrogh forced him to give a false confession. He appealed on the grounds of vindictive prosecution.

In 2019, the Supreme Court upheld his appeal and ordered Virginia to review his claims. But an appellate court in Virginia rejected Wolfe’s appeal, saying Wolfe’s lawyers hadn’t properly articulated their concerns about the severity of the charges brought by Morrogh and how that had a coercive effect on Wolfe.

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