Justin Wolfe was wrongfully convicted of a 2001 murder in a Washington, D.C. suburb and sentenced to death. The man who prosecuted him, Paul Ebert, has sent more men to death row in Virginia than any other prosecutor in the state.
Wolfe was convicted almost solely on the basis of the testimony of another man, Owen Barber, who has since confessed to being the real shooter in the crime. However, Mr. Ebert allegedly paid Mr. Barber a visit and threatened him with the death penalty if he recanted his 2002 testimony, which he first did in the form of an affidavit in 2005.
In 2011, Justin’s conviction was overturned by a federal court judge who made multiple findings of prosecutorial misconduct on the part of Ebert and his colleagues. Dahlia Lithwick of Slate describes the misconduct:
Conduct evidently included choreographing and coordinating witness testimony, withholding tapes of witness interviews from the defense, and knowingly allowing false testimony to be introduced at trial. Jackson finds that prosecutors failed to turn over a report showing that it was police detectives who first introduced the idea to Barber that Wolfe had masterminded the killing, and who gave him the option of implicating Wolfe or receiving the death penalty. He finds that they suppressed evidence that Barber confessed to his roommate that he’d acted alone.
Lithwick’s analysis of the Court’s ruling highlights the problems that stem from a system lacking in prosecutorial accountability:
While [the judge’s] decision exposes serious prosecutorial misconduct in Wolfe’s case, it also illustrates a deeper problem: a capital punishment system that encourages bad behavior, then magnifies the sin by allowing that behavior to go undetected.
This complex case has received extensive coverage, including Lithwick’s piece and an exceptional 2009 article by Drew Lindsay of Washingtonian Magazine.
Despite Wolfe’s overturned conviction and the recantations of the state’s only eyewitness-turned-shooter, a federal appeals court has not yet ruled on whether Mr. Wolfe will be retried. The Open File will provide updates as they emerge.