“The decision was interesting,” Marvin D. Miller, Wolfe’s defense attorney said. “The decision is inconsistent within itself, and inconsistent with prior decisions.”
The Supreme Court’s opinion, authored by Chief Justice Leroy R. Hassell Sr., was released Friday.
Wolfe was sentenced to death in Prince William Circuit Court in January 2002 for the murder of Daniel Robert Petrole, 21. Petrole, of Braemar, supplied Wolfe and other members of a Northern Virginia drug ring with chronic, a high-quality marijuana. Wolfe paid another member of the ring, Owen Merton Barber IV, 23, to kill Petrole.
Barber pleaded guilty to murder, and was sentenced to 38 years in prison. But not before he testified against Wolfe. In an agreement with prosecutors, Barber gave the evidence and plea in exchange for a non-capital murder charge against him.
Miller argued multiple errors were made in Wolfe’s trial, and that Wolfe’s death sentence should be commuted as a result. But Virginia’s Supreme Court denied the 37 claims presented by Miller.
“We have considered all the defendant’s remaining arguments, and they are without merit,” Hassell wrote. “Having reviewed the sentence of death, finding no reversible error in the record, and perceiving no reason to commute the death sentence, we will affirm the judgment of the circuit court.”
In order for a defendant to be sentenced to death in Virginia, the jury must believe that the defendant either presents a future danger to society, or that the crime committed was so vile as to warrant the death penalty. Miller argued that neither criterion applied to Wolfe.
But the Supreme Court disagreed.
“The evidence of record establishes, beyond a reasonable doubt, that this defendant is a future danger to society. … The evidence showed that this defendant devised a plan whereby he lured Petrole, his major drug supplier, to a specific location in Virginia,” Hassell wrote. “The defendant paid his longtime friend, Barber, to follow Petrole, and then execute him … Additionally, the fact that soon after Petrole was killed, the defendant celebrated at a party and drank a toast in honor of the murder is indicative of the danger he poses to others.”
The justices also ruled that the vileness of the crime applied to Wolfe as well as Barber, though Barber was the one who emptied the clip of a 9 mm pistol into the driver’s window of Petrole’s car.
They also denied Miller’s argument that giving Wolfe the death penalty was excessively harsh compared to other murder for hire defendants’ sentences.
“Even though no two capital murder cases are identical, we are confident that given the special heinousness associated with the murder for hire in this particular case, the sentence of death is neither excessive nor disproportionate to sentences generally imposed by other sentencing bodies in this commonwealth for crimes of a similar nature considering the crime and this defendant,” Hassell wrote.
The justices also rejected Miller’s arguments about the prosecutor’s closing statement at the trial and that the Prince William Circuit Court Judge Herman A. Whisenant Jr. should have answered jurors’ questions during deliberations differently.
Miller complained that the prosecutor told jurors in closing argument that they should sentence Wolfe to death in order to “send a message” and that if sentenced to life in prison, Wolfe might at some point be eligible for parole. Miller argued that such statements denied Wolfe a fair trial.
The Supreme Court denied the argument, saying that since Wolfe’s attorney during the trial, John Partridge, did not object to the prosecutor’s closing statements, Miller could not raise objections for the first time on appeal.
Staff writer Maria Hegstad can be reached at (703) 368-3101, Ext. 121.