Vindictive prosecution claim leads to review of murder plea

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. Supreme Court has ordered a lower court to review the case of a northern Virginia drug dealer who says his guilty plea in a 2001 murder was coerced by vindictive prosecutors.

Justin Wolfe was just 19 when he was charged with murder in the death of another dealer, Daniel Petrole, to escape a $60,000 debt. Wolfe, who spent several years on death row, has seen his case bounce through the courts for nearly 18 years.

A federal judge tossed out a jury's death sentence in 2012 and accused prosecutors of misconduct. A different prosecutor retried Wolfe, who in 2016 admitted having Petrole killed. Wolfe was sentenced to 41 years in prison.

Wolfe now says he pleaded guilty only because prosecutors brought even more severe charges against him than were originally filed.

Wolfe's attorney, Marvin Miller, said Tuesday that he expects the Virginia Supreme Court will now send the case to a lower court to consider the merit of Wolfe's arguments.

"They did wrong to get a conviction," Miller said of prosecutors who handled Wolfe's case. "And when it was sent back for review, they did him wrong again to avoid dealing with it. ... If Virginia deals with this case squarely, he'll get relief."

The Virginia attorney general's office, which is handling the appeals, declined comment Tuesday.

The Supreme Court's order Monday remanding the case comes in the wake of a 2018 ruling that gives defendants more leeway to challenge their convictions after a guilty plea.

Back in 2001, Wolfe was a top dog in a suburban drug ring that sold millions of dollars' worth of high-grade marijuana. Prosecutors say he conspired with another man, Owen Barber, to kill Petrole, his supplier.

Barber struck a plea deal and testified against Wolfe, who was convicted in 2002 and sentenced to death. At his initial 2002 trial, Wolfe acknowledged he was a drug dealer but denied any role in Petrole's murder.

Barber later recanted his testimony against Wolfe and ultimately vacillated multiple times about whether he shot Petrole at Wolfe's behest.

A federal judge, U.S. District Judge Raymond Jackson in Norfolk, vacated Wolfe's death sentence and ordered a new trial. For the retrial, Prince William County Commonwealth's Attorney Paul Ebert recused himself, and Fairfax County prosecutor Ray Morrogh was brought in.

Morrogh brought death penalty charges again and additional charges that had not been included at the initial trial. He secured a plea deal that took the death penalty off the table but included a requirement sought by the Petrole family for Wolfe to admit in his own words what he did.

Wolfe now says that confession was coerced.