Justin Michael Wolfe, 22, was convicted of murder-for-hire in Prince William Circuit Court in January 2002. Defense attorney Marvin D. Miller argued that there were several errors in Wolfe’:s trial that the justices should consider. Wolfe’:s family retained Miller after the trial.
Miller raised several concerns: the indictment charging Wolfe did not include the offense; the jury was improperly instructed by the judge; Wolfe’:s crime wasn’:t as violent as those perpetrated by other murder-for-hire defendants who were incarcerated for life, while Wolfe received a capital sentence; and Wolfe’:s future dangerousness had been exaggerated.
Wolfe was convicted of paying Owen Merton Barber IV, a friend from Chantilly High School, to kill Daniel Petrole. Barber, 22, Petrole, 21, and Wolfe were part of a drug ring peddling high-quality marijuana in Northern Virginia. Petrole was Wolfe’:s supplier; Wolfe was indebted to him.
On the night of March 15, 2001, Barber pulled up behind Petrole’:s car, which he had just parked in front of his Braemar townhouse. Barber emptied the clip of a 9 mm semiautomatic handgun through the driver’:s window. He was convicted of murder and sentenced to 38 years in prison. A series of cell phone calls between Barber and Wolfe that night were used to link the two in court. In a deal with the Commonwealth, Barber agreed to testify against Wolfe for a non-capital murder charge.
Miller explained that during deliberations in Wolfe’:s trial, jurors asked Judge Herman A. Whisenant Jr. the definition of “life” in the term “life sentence.” An earlier question suggested that jurors were concerned Wolfe might eventually be released on geriatric parole if given a life sentence. Miller argued that the judge should have instructed jurors that “life” meant natural life.
“The Commonwealth twice told jurors he might get out,” Miller said. “The jury asked two questions relating to that. The judge had a duty to use the right language.”
Miller said the Virginia Supreme Court has reviewed the cases of 16 murder-for-hire convicts. Of these, six received death sentences. Miller argued that those six defendants had all been more violently involved in the contracted killing than Wolfe had been.
“Murder-for-hire is not a per se capital offense,” Miller said. “You must look at his conduct. Looking at the other 16, there’:s no comparison.”
Assistant Attorney General Robert Q. Harris responded for the Commonwealth. He pointed out that the defense didn’:t object to the wording of the indictment before the verdict. Harris also argued that the crime Wolfe committed was sufficiently violent to cause concern that he would be a future danger.
“[Daniel Petrole was shot] nine times. Six times were independently fatal,” Harris said. “It is undeniable that the defendant’:s conduct set in motion the death of Danny Petrole … The General Assembly made it clear that the hirer and the hiree are equally responsible.”
The seven justices grilled both attorneys throughout their arguments. Miller said afterward it was difficult to tell what their decision might be from the questions asked. He estimated it would be three months before a decision is published.
Wolfe’:s mother, Teresa Steinburg, who was present at the appeal, said that another three months wouldn’:t be any harder than what she has already endured.
“The whole thing is just hard,” she said softly.
Petrole’:s father, Daniel Robert Petrole Sr., was also in Richmond to hear the appeal.
“I have compassion for Wolfe, but every time I do, I remember what he did. This is done, we can’:t bring Danny back,” Petrole said. “People have to be responsible for their actions.”