"Rebuilding the Lives of the Wrongfully Convicted"

Letter from 59 lawyers backs ouster of special prosecutor in Va. murder-for-hire case

RICHMOND, Va. — Fifty-nine former judges, prosecutors and other attorneys sent a Prince William County judge a letter Wednesday advocating the removal of the special prosecutor in a high-profile murder-for-hire case.

A federal appeals court earlier this year upheld a judge’s decision to toss out Justin Wolfe’s conviction and death sentence in the slaying of his marijuana supplier, Daniel Petrole. The court ruled that prosecutors wrongly withheld evidence from Wolfe’s attorneys that would have discredited their star witness — triggerman Owen Barber IV, who later recanted his testimony. The court left open the possibility of a retrial.

Prince William County Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul Ebert, chastised by the appeals court for actions that it called “abhorrent to the judicial process,” recused himself and Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond Morrogh was appointed special prosecutor. Morrogh promptly announced he would retry the case.

Wolfe’s attorneys have questioned Morrogh’s impartiality, and a hearing is set Oct. 31 on their motion to remove him as special prosecutor. A broad spectrum of lawyers supported that motion in a letter to Circuit Judge Mary Grace O’Brien, saying Morrogh’s quick decision suggests he “did not carefully examine the evidence to reach an independent conclusion” about the case.

Instead, they wrote, Morrogh appears to have taken his cue from Prince William prosecutors “who were responsible for the misconduct and errors in judgment that left Mr. Wolfe on death row for more than a decade.”

Morrogh did not immediately return a telephone message seeking a response.

The letter was filed along with court papers by Wolfe’s lawyers, Edward Ungvarsky and Kimberly Irving, alleging that Morrogh has been improperly collaborating with Ebert and his aides as he prepares for the retrial. They also say Ebert orchestrated the appointment of Morrogh, his longtime friend, prompting “public concern and loss of confidence in the integrity of court proceedings.”

The Wolfe case exposed a multi-million-dollar drug ring run by young people barely out of high school in the affluent northern Virginia suburbs. Wolfe was convicted based largely on the testimony of Barber, who in 2005 retracted his story that Wolfe hired him to kill Petrole. After a four-day evidentiary hearing, a federal judge found Barber’s recantation credible and ruled that prosecutors improperly suppressed several pieces of evidence.

The key piece of withheld evidence was a report by a detective who flew to California to bring Barber back to Virginia. According to the report, the officer told Barber he might avoid the death penalty if he implicated Wolfe in the slaying. Barber later agreed to plead guilty to first-degree murder and testify against Wolfe in exchange for a life sentence.