NORFOLK, Va. (AP/ABC7) - A Virginia man who has spent more than a decade on death row was ordered freed within 10 days by a federal judge that said prosecutors failed to retry him within the required time period.
U.S. District Judge Raymond Jackson in Norfolk on Wednesday also barred Virginia prosecutors from retrying Justin Wolfe, an alleged drug dealer whose original murder-for-hire conviction was overturned.
Wolfe was convicted in 2002 and sent to death row. But last year, Jackson overturned the conviction, ruling that Prince William County prosecutors hid evidence that would have undermined their case. The triggerman in the case - Owen Barber IV - also later recanted his testimony implicating Wolfe at a hearing held in front of Jackson.
Both men were charged in the 2001 killing of a large-scale marijuana supplier, Daniel Petrole. It exposed the workings of a drug ring in affluent northern Virginia suburbs.
Jackson last year ordered that Wolfe be retried within 120 days or unconditionally released from prison. At a hearing earlier this month, Wolfe's attorneys said that time has run out.
A state attorney, however, had argued that prosecutors were in compliance because the clock didn't start until September after the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued its mandate sending the case back to state court.
Wolfe's retrial was scheduled to begin Jan. 2 at the request of special prosecutor Ray Morrogh, who sought additional time to put his case together. That date has been continued and a hearing was set for Jan. 16, prior to the latest ruling.
"We are pleased and we hope the court unconditionally releases him as Judge Jackson ordered," said Kimberly Irving, one of Wolfe's attorneys. "We believe it's time for him to go home."
After visiting with her son Wednesday evening, Wolfe's mother, Terri Steinberg, said the family was "cautiously optimistic, but we will remain hopeful."
"He has missed the past twelve Christmases and every year we say the same thing," says Terri Steinberg. "This will be the last one."
Jackson's Wednesday ruling also barred state prosecutors from re-prosecuting Wolfe on the original charges in state court or any other charges stemming from Petrole's death, which would require Barber's testimony.
"Justin has told the same story for twelve years," says Prince William County Commonwealth's Attorney Paul Ebert. "Nothing has ever waivered."
Ebert is saying little about the ruling, stating, "We respectfully disagree with the judge's decision."