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BY MATTHEW BARAKAT
MANASSAS--A federal judge has ordered the defendant in a Prince William capital murder case to be unconditionally released from custody as of today at 5 p.m. unless a federal appeals court intervenes.
Justin Wolfe has twice been charged with capital murder for the 2001 slaying of a Northern Virginia drug dealer. And twice, a federal judge has ordered the charges tossed out for alleged misconduct by Prince William County prosecutors.
The most recent order came from U.S. District Court Judge Raymond Jackson in Norfolk on Christmas Eve and requires Wolfe's release by today.
At a hearing Wednesday in Manassas, Circuit Judge Mary Grace O'Brien said she will abide by that ruling and release Wolfe today unless an appellate court intervenes.
Virginia's attorney general's office is asking the federal appeals court in Richmond to halt Wolfe's release.
Jackson, in his Christmas Eve ruling, said the prosecution of Wolfe is irrevocably tainted by prosecutors' misconduct. Specifically, he alleged that prosecutors coerced false testimony from their star witness, Owen Barber, and withheld from the defense evidence that would have undermined Barber's credibility.
And Jackson said prosecutors compounded the error by making a jailhouse visit to Barber in September and making thinly veiled threats against him if he wavered from his initial testimony implicating Wolfe.
Barber testified at Wolfe's original trial in 2002 that Wolfe hired him to shoot and kill Daniel Petrole to get out from a debt that Wolfe owed Petrole. Barber's testimony came as part of a plea bargain that spared him the death penalty. Wolfe was convicted and sent to death row.
In recent years, though, Barber has flip-flopped his testimony several times. His most recent testimony, in Jackson's Norfolk courtroom, was that he falsely implicated Wolfe because prosecutors told him that was the only way he could get a plea deal.
Special prosecutor Ray Morrogh, who took over the case after Prince William County Commonwealth's Attorney Paul Ebert recused himself in September, said Wednesday that he has no doubt that Barber's initial testimony implicating Wolfe was the truth.