Supreme Court asked to block release of death row inmate in Virginia
(CNN) — Virginia officials have asked the U.S. Supreme Court for emergency intervention to block the imminent release of a death-row inmate, whose murder-for-hire conviction has been questioned after allegations of prosecutorial misconduct.
Chief Justice John Roberts was deciding Thursday whether to grant the state’s request, after a federal judge last week ordered Justin Wolfe be freed as early as 5 p.m. ET.
Wolfe was sentenced to die at age 20 after a jury found that he ordered the 2002 murder of his marijuana supplier.
Judge Raymond Jackson concluded that prosecutors in Prince William County outside Washington had manipulated and excluded evidence that may have proved helpful to the defendant.
The state’s key witness at trial later recanted his testimony that Wolfe was the murder mastermind and admitted lying on the stand.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul Ebert, who led the prosecution, has denied wrongdoing and said he wanted a re-trial, which the judge last week rejected.
The judge made a similar finding in 2011 and had ordered a retrial within six months, but that never happened, prompting Jackson to issue his latest order.
“What is clear is that through the actions of the Original Prosecuting Team, petitioner [Wolfe] has been denied the very remedy that would have repaired the numerous constitutional violations this court found,” Jackson said on Dec. 26, adding such violations were “essentially permanent.”
“As such, the court finds extraordinary circumstances exist that warrant barring re-prosecution of the petitioner. It is clear that any retrial under the present circumstances would result in incurable violations of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and the rights afforded to all defendants.”
Wolfe, who had admitted being a drug dealer, has been on death row for nearly a decade.
If the high court fails to intervene, the state presumably would have up to 10 days from the 5 p.m. Thursday deadline to free Wolfe, now 30.
His lawyers allege county prosecutors earlier this year tried to pressure the triggerman, Owen Barber, to change his story and re-implicate Wolfe, saying they were now prepared to put Barber himself on death row for the crime.
The state strongly denies pressuring anyone.
Original court testimony showed the killing was linked to a power struggle within a suburban marijuana ring, which reportedly was headed by the murder victim.
There was no indication when Roberts would rule on the pending injunction request.
The case is Clarke v. Wolfe (12A667).