A hearing to discern why Prince William County prosecutors and others met with the admitted triggerman in a murder-for-hire case was delayed Tuesday as a former death row inmate prepares to be tried for a second time in the case.
Owen Merton Barber IV pleaded guilty more than a decade ago to gunning down Daniel Robert Petrole Jr. in Bristow. Attorneys representing Justin Michael Wolfe—the man whose conviction for Petrole’s murder was overturned in federal court—want to know why Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul B. Ebert and others met with Barber on Sept. 11. The hearing was delayed until Oct. 31.
During Tuesday's hearing, Prince William County Circuit Court Judge Mary Grace O’Brien also set a Jan. 2 start date for Wolfe’s new trial, with the entire month of January set aside.
While Wolfe’s conviction was overturned — he had been on Virginia’s death row for a decade — prosecutors plan to try him again in Petrole’s murder. Barber testified against Wolfe, but has since stated in federal court that Wolfe was not involved in the crime.
Ebert, Assistant Commonwealth Attorney Richard Conway and several others were subpoenaed to learn what was discussed during the Sept. 11 meeting, and whether it violated any procedures, laws or Wolfe’s rights. An attorney for Ebert succeeded in quashing his subpoena, but only for Tuesday's hearing. Everyone subpoenaed by the defense will be expected to appear Oct. 31.
Wolfe has always denied involvement in Petrole’s murder. Documents presented in federal court and Barber’s court testimony indicate that a detective first gave Wolfe’s name to Barber. Barber said prosecutors and his own attorney then forced him to testify against Wolfe or face the death penalty. A federal judge called the prosecutors actions in the case “abhorrent to the judicial process.”
Earlier this year, the Commonwealth of Virginia declined to appeal the federal rulings that overturned Wolfe’s convictions on murder-for-hire and drug distribution. But the Prince William prosecutors’ office decided to pursue a fresh case against Wolfe, with new charges. Prosecutors have not yet decided whether to pursue the death penalty.
Fairfax County Commonwealth Attorney Ray Morrogh has been assigned as a special prosecutor for the case. Wolfe’s attorneys have questioned Morrogh’s ability to try to the case because of his friendship with Ebert. That issue will be heard Oct. 31 along with the inquiry into the Sept. 11 meeting with Barber.
More on the case:
Justin Wolfe Held Without Bail Until Retrial
State Will Not Appeal Justin Wolfe Death Penalty Case
Fourth Circuit Critical of Prosecutors in Wolfe Case
Fourth Circuit Affirms Vacation of Wolfe Death Sentence